By Steven Martin Kensington
What is the Iran Nuclear Deal?
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Act was signed in Vienna by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union and Iran on 14th July 2015. It was intended to prevent Iran from quickly building a nuclear bomb by curbing nuclear activities the United States considered most troubling. It allowed some uranium enrichment, for the sake of what Iran claims is “peaceful medical research and energy. Iran has meanwhile said that they have never sought nuclear weapons. In exchange, world powers lifted crippling U.S. and international economic sanctions.
In the US, 44th President Barack Obama signed the deal, which his successor later called “an embarrassment” in his speech in the mid-September United Nations General Assembly. According to the deal, the U.S. President shall, at least every 90 days, determine whether he is able to certify that (1) Iran is fully implementing the agreement, (2) Iran has not committed a material breach of the agreement, (3) Iran has not taken any action that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program, and (4) suspension of sanctions against Iran is appropriate and proportionate to measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program and vital to U.S. national security interests. Carol Morello falsely reported in the Washington Post on Sept. 17 that this was every 120 days. CNN summarized the deal as follows:
Stockpiles and centrifuges: The deal has curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reducing its stockpiles of enriched uranium by 97% and cutting the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds.
Uranium enrichment: It still allows Iran to continue enrichment – enough for civil use to power parts of the country, but not enough to build a nuclear bomb.
Inspections: Iran is required to provide inspectors from the UN’s nuclear watchdog access to monitor its declared nuclear facilities.
Compliance: Every 90 days, the US President must certify to Congress that Iran is keeping up its end of the deal. If the President does not certify the agreement, Congress has a 60-day period to decide whether to reimpose sanctions.
Sanctions: If Iran doesn’t comply, US, EU, and UN nuclear-related sanctions on the Iranian economy would be reinstated. A number of non-nuclear-related sanctions currently remain in place.
Why does Trump reject this deal?
Trump has already certified Iranian compliance twice, first in April and then in July, according to Politico’s Eliana Johnson on October 3. He reportedly bridled when being presented by advisers with a binary option in July of certifying or decertifying. Mrs. Johnson described the occurrence as follows:
During an Oval Office meeting with Tillerson, McMaster and former presidential advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, Trump unleashed a tirade in which he demanded more options and adamantly refused to recertify the deal. Tillerson and McMaster warned him that if he declined to do so, and Congress moved to reimpose sanctions, he would spend the rest of his term embroiled in a bitter debate over the merits of the agreement with allies and foes alike.
She reports that a senior administration official said that the President ultimately bowed to his advisers, but only after what he described as a “knock-down, drag-out fight” that lasted several hours. Trump did an interview with the Wall Street Journal shortly after the meeting, where he said that, “if it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago. I think they’ll be noncompliant by the next deadline.”
According to the Washington Post, the International Atomic Energy Agency has stated eight times that Iran is complying with the deal. American military leaders have said the same. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the issue lies deeper than just nuclear-proliferation, stating that “We have a lot of issues with Iran. They’re a yard long. The nuclear issue is one foot of that yard. We have two feet of other issues that we must deal with. And it has to do with Iran’s destabilizing activities,” referring to the US having witnessed that “Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in Yemen, it stepped up its destabilizing activities in Syria, and exports to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, and it continues to conduct a very active ballistic missile program. None of that, I believe, is consistent with that preamble commitment.” The architects of the deal, however, said at the time that the deal only focused on Iran’s nuclear program because it was considered better to confront Tehran without the possibility of nuclear weapons.
Trump faces an Oct. 15 deadline to report to Congress on whether Iran is complying with the agreement and whether he judges the deal to be in U.S. national security interests. Most sources states that he is unlikely to certify it, among the reasons being the ones Mr. Tillerson mentioned in the quote above, and also to the objection that the deal allows Iran to build up nuclear proliferation, as the deal states that the nuclear sanctions will decrease over the following years. Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and Senator of Arkansas Tom Cotton suggested a “fix it or nix it” approach to the issue (the term comes from Mr. Netanyahu’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September). They suggested discussing possible legislation to “strengthen” the agreement. Cotton stated that Congress should eliminate “sunset clauses”, under which restrictions on some Iranian nuclear activities expire after several years, tougher inspections requirements and new curbs on Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile programs.
CNN reported that this third approach would “allow US to stay in the deal, but help Trump avoid the political headache of having to re-certify it every 90 days.”
Trump states he won’t scrap the deal, but doing exactly that was one of the promises he gave on the campaign trail. If he gets as he wants, it could be another Obama-era legislature erased, being the third major foreign policy decision that this pattern has been followed with, after having opted out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
What does his administration think?
His administration is divided on the issue. The Secretary of Defense James Mattis said during a hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee that he believes it is in US best interest to remain in the agreement: “I believe at this point in time absent indications to the contrary [to Iran following the demands of the deal], it is something the President should consider staying with.” Though he also added that “The President has to consider more broadly things that rightly fall under his portfolio of looking out for the American people in areas that goes beyond the specific letters of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) – in that regard I support the rigorous review that he has got going on right now.”
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that “The President’s team has presented a united strategy that the national security team all stands behind and supports.” Mrs. Johnson reported that administration officials are expected to press Republican lawmakers not to impose nuclear sanctions, which would effectively unravel the agreement in the eyes of the Iranian government and many U.S. allies.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster has worked for months to produce a third option that avoids Trump’s previous frustrations, also hinting in meetings that he didn’t think decertification was the way to go, though he never explicitly disagreed with the President. An Iran policy expert familiar with the administration’s thinking on the issue said that “one of the options [presented to the president] is to decertify, continue to waive the statutory sanctions, roll out a new strategy, and then make the case to the Hill that this is not the time to reinstate nuclear sanctions and there will be a broader strategy to strengthen the deal.” McMaster’s policy review is due Oct. 31. Its policy is expected to target Iranian based militias and terrorist groups, and will be the first to label the military branch of a regime – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – as a foreign terrorist organization. The organization controls large portions of the Iranian economy; a branch of the organization, the elite Quds Force, was labeled a terrorist organization in 2007; and the organization have been sanctioned themselves for nuclear proliferation and human rights abuses, but the entire organization has never before been designated a terrorist group.
Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin favors recertification rather than de-certification. Though Mr. Tillerson is openly against Iran’s non-nuclear actions, he thinks it’s best to do so, as this deal only applies for nuclear proliferation. According to an administration official he “disagrees with the president on so many issues that he has learned to ‘pick and choose’ his battles.”
UN ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, on the other side, pushed hard for decertification.
What does Congress think?
Congress is mostly against renegotiating the deal. A Senior Democratic aide told CNN that “lawmakers on the other side of the aisle believe the President should make the certification, full stop.” One envoy stated that the Democrats back the deal, even those who previously voted against it, including Chuck Schumer. He also said that most Republicans aren’t interested in reopening the deal either, among them being Senate and House majority leaders, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, respectively. Congress already have enough on its calendar, not being able to pass a single piece of major legislation this year. It is stated that there’s little appetite for reopening the deal, but that some in Congress worry the Republicans may introduce legislation to force the issue. This, it has been argued, would in that case be done by the “hawkish Republicans” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and whether they’ll be successful or not will be up to whether McConnell will be in a position to derail them. If Trump decertifies, Congress will have 60 days to reimpose sanctions, a stress they’ll be unlikely to enjoy.
What does the international community think?
European diplomats and leaders are already meeting with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to persuade and lobby them on the merits of the agreement. Foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and China forwarded the argument on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that the deal was meant to solely address Iran’s nuclear program, and not meant to account for i.e. the terrorism-sponsoring which the Secretary of State argued it should. Diplomats who attended the meeting said that European leaders “signaled they were not interested in expanding the scope of its implementation [beyond nuclear-related issues].” Representatives of Iran, China and Russia told Rex Tillerson at this meeting that the agreement was not open for renegotiation.
It has been argued that the third option of expanding the deal might keep Europeans who wants to keep the deal on board with the administration’s efforts to fight the other destabilizing activities Iran has going on. It might instead, however, further isolate the U.S. on foreign policy, weakening it even more, after having left both the Paris climate accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership. It could seem like an isolationist approach from Trump side, no matter how bad those deals might be. An anonymous diplomat said, “We, the Europeans, we have hammered this: the agreement is working. We as Europeans, have repeated … it’s impossible to reopen the agreement. Period. It’s impossible.”
At the United Nations General Assembly, world leaders had their chance in trying to persuade President Trump on the issue. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, could not attend the meeting due to campaigning for her fourth term in the German election held a few weeks later. It was left to Theresa May of Britain and Emmanuel Macron of France to convince the President to keep the deal alive. As Trump kept repeating that Iran would have a nuclear bomb within five years under the agreement, neither of them managed to persuade him of otherwise. Theresa May used half of the 50-minute meeting to argue for the merits of the JCPOA, but Trump said he had decided on what to do, saying “you make your decisions, I make mine,” though he didn’t tell her what he planned.
What does Iran think?
Iran is mad. The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in his speech at the UN General Assembly that the deal is not open for renegotiation. The foreign minister said last week that Tehran [Iran’s capital] might abandon the deal if Washington withdraws. Iran warned that if the U.S. reimposes sanctions, Tehran might restart its nuclear program. A Senior Iran diplomat told Reuters that if Trump decertified the deal it would isolate the United States since European would continue to support it, and that foreign investors “will not be scared away from Iran’s market if Trump de-certifies the deal.”
The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate power in Tehran’s theocracy, went on his English-speaking Twitter account for some harsh words about this decision, labeling Washington as domineering, bullying, oppressive, hounding and cruel – and corrupt and lying to boot:
Pros and cons about decertifying
• Could increase pressure on Iran’s non-nuclear threats, such as terrorism-sponsoring, human rights abuses and ballistic-missile proliferation.
• The deal allows Iran to create a nuclear bomb within 5 years.
• The deal went too far in easing sanctions without requiring that Iran end its nuclear program permanently.
• A “political headache” for the President to have to go over it every 90 days.
• Iran is following the requirements of the agreement. If decertified, it would therefore allow Iran to claim moral high ground over the US by portraying themselves as a reasonable player in the world compared to them.
• It could seem like an isolationist approach after Trump leaving both the Paris climate accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership. According to Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) it would therefore undermine global confidence in the deal and in U.S. commitments in general, calling it a “destructive political gesture.” Stephen Collinson of CNN elaborates this further, saying the move “would be certain to outrage US allies and further jolt transatlantic ties that were sourced by Trump’s withdrawal from another international agreement – the Paris climate accord,” and that it would also risk decreasing US credibility for future agreements like, for instance, in the diplomatic process of the North Korea nuclear crisis.
• Non-proliferation experts fear the decision could weaken the deal and lead to its eventual collapse. “This approach could kill the agreement by a thousand cuts,” said Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association.
• Iran potentially leaving the agreement and rebuilding its nuclear force if placed economic sanctions on them would be a risk that is not worth taking only to confront the non-nuclear threats.
• Its collapse could trigger a regional arms race and worsen Middle East tensions.
• “The maximum point of leverage to address Iran’s nefarious activities is now, before his expected terrible decision – not after, when he undermines America’s credibility to uphold its commitments with our allies and partners,” a Democratic aide told CNN.
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