The Questions Raised By Trump's Iran Deal Decision

The U.S. will stick to the nuclear agreement—for now.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Updated at 1:13 p.m.

After months of speculation, here’s the Trump administration’s policy toward the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: “We will stay in the JCPOA, but the president will decertify under INARA,” said Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, referring to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. What this essentially means is that the JCPOA is safe for now, but Congress could amend existing U.S. legislation to make it easier to impose sanctions on Iran. If that doesn’t happen, Trump said, “the agreement will be terminated.”

The administration will ask Congress to amend the existing U.S. legislation that covers the multilateral agreement so that lawmakers could automatically impose U.S. sanctions if Iran crosses certain “trigger points” on the nuclear program and its ballistic-missile program. The legislation would also, Tillerson said, deal with the sunset clauses in the JCPOA that critics say merely delay the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“These amendments under INARA would outlive the JCPOA,” he said.

The Trump administration will also impose targeted Treasury Department sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of the Iranian military—a move that falls far short of what critics of Iran wanted: for the IRGC to be declared a terrorist group, but which some observers have called “a distinction without a difference.” Tillerson also said the U.S. would seek a complementary deal with Iran on its regional activity and ballistic-missile program, suggesting he had broached the issue with his Iranian counterpart and other signatories to the JCPOA.

What all this does, in essence, is keep the Iran deal a U.S. domestic issue—for now.

Trump railed against the agreement as candidate and as president, calling it an “embarrassment” and “the worst deal ever.” He said he would “renegotiate” or “dismantle” it. But in perhaps his most detailed remarks about Iran, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in September 2016, Trump listed Iran’s regional transgressions: its “aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region,” its support for  “terror groups all over the world,” and its ballistic missile program. “At the very least, we must hold Iran accountable by restructuring the terms of the previous deal,” Trump said at the time—comments he repeated Friday as he detailed Iran’s actions.

Still, Friday’s effort falls far short of that pledge. Renegotiating or restructuring the JCPOA isn’t on the table. Iran has rejected the idea, as have the other signatories to the agreement: China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

The administration’s policy raises several questions: First, why punt the issue to Congress when Trump can, in fact, impose sanctions unilaterally? Second, if Iran is an untrustworthy partner, why seek a complementary deal on its regional activities and ballistic-missile program? Third, if the deal negotiated by the Obama administration was so bad, why not walk away?

By pushing the Iran deal to lawmakers, the Trump administration is, in effect, handing over a pivotal aspect of U.S. foreign policy to Congress. Barbara Slavin, who is  director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, pointed out in an email that Trump could, in fact, “re-impose sanctions [on Iran] anytime he wants without Congressional approval. So this is, in a sense, the ultimate cop-out.”

Some of the measures that the administration is seeking—restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, targeted sanctions, and measures against the IRGC—were already passed by Congress earlier this year as part of sanctions that targeted Russia, along with Iran and North Korea. This week, U.S. lawmakers complained that Trump hadn’t implemented those sanctions yet.

Nor is it clear there is enough support in Congress to pass the kind of legislation being sought by the Trump administration. A congressional Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me this week: “It really is far from clear that they can get 60 votes at this time.” (That potential obstacle has been borne out by Trump’s other efforts to get Congress to back his agenda, including repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, which is also called Obamacare.)

Tillerson said there was some congressional support for the administration’s proposal, but acknowledged it can be difficult to move quickly in Congress. “I don’t want to suggest this is a slam dunk,” he said, adding: “We hope they deal with this” in the next 90 days, when the president must certify once again that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.

Congress could choose to do nothing, ensuring the U.S. will remain in the JCPOA, or it can reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, a move that would ensure the U.S. is in violation of the agreement.

But Trump, speaking Friday: “In the event, we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.”

Iran’s critics have said it is already cheating on its obligations to the JCPOA, though international inspectors and even Tillerson and James Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, have said Tehran is complying with the deal (even if they have both criticized the deal and Iran’s regional activities). By seeking legislation that would cover Iran’s activities that are not part of the JCPOA, the administration is making the deal that much weaker, a move that Slavin said “will reinforce the very hardliners [in Iran] the JCPOA was meant to undercut.” And by seeking a complementary agreement with Iran, the administration is sending a mixed signal on Iran’s trustworthiness.

The JCPOA was meant to cover only Iran’s nuclear program, which, as William Perry, the Clinton-era defense secretary, told me this week, is the “most serious” problem “we have with Iran.” U.S. partners in the agreement have cited Iran’s support of Syria’s Assad regime, its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia groups across the region as troubling actions.

“When we started this negotiation, it was a conscious decision to focus on the single most important issue, which was that Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons,” David O’Sullivan, the EU ambassador to Washington, told me last week. “And to put other issues into the mix would frankly have blurred the importance of the nuclear issue, and would have perhaps undermined the quality of the deal that we could get on the nuclear issue.”

Indeed, while the JCPOA was a central part of Obama foreign policy, it was agreed to while the U.S. squeezed Iran through some of the toughest sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic. Iran’s oil exports halved following the imposition of the measures in 2010, and some U.S. allies who trade with Iran complained about the measures’ restrictiveness.

“The most optimistic interpretation” of Friday’s announcement, Slavin told me, “is that this is a clever ploy by Trump’s advisers to keep him in the deal.”

Tillerson, however, acknowledged that while the announcement would keep the JCPOA intact, the president is none too happy about it.

“You’ll hear,” he said, “he’s not particularly optimistic.”