Obama’s Iran deal lives on – but its days are numbered
Iran-deal supporters rejoice: President Trump is signaling that his predecessor’s signature foreign-policy legacy is unassailable.
Or is he?
The Trump administration reported to Congress on Monday that Tehran is complying with the pact, just as it did back in April. Why? Two years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring the secretary of state to announce every 90 days whether he or she can say with certainty that Iran is complying.
Under President Barack Obama, certification was automatic. But Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to “rip up” the deal, calling it a “disaster.”
Yet as the deal marks its two-year anniversary, Trump has for the second time certified Iranian compliance, thereby blocking Congress from imposing nuclear-related sanctions. The administration can’t start renegotiating, or telling allies it’s time to “snap back” to those international sanctions the Iran deal erased.
So the deal lives — temporarily.
According to numerous press reports, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis won an internal debate against Special Adviser Steve Bannon, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Trump. The latter group wanted — at the least — to say they can’t certify Iranian compliance, putting the deal in limbo and opening Iran up to nuclear sanctions without quite tearing up the whole thing.
The winning camp advised caution, reasoning that while Iran is certainly violating the deal’s spirit, it abides by its letter and raising fears of a clash with our global allies. In the end, while certifying compliance, the administration announced new sanctions on Iran for various non-nuclear offenses.
Both sides in the internal debate are right, says the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, who has advised Trump on world affairs during the transition period.
As Trump says, it’s a “bad deal,” Carafano told me. Yet the administration is yet to devise a “full regional strategy” to replace it. And yes, “our friends and allies clearly need to see where we’re going.”
The administration, indeed, is said to be working on an Iran policy “review” that’s due to be completed this summer. Afterwards, in three months — or six, or nine — it may well start to paint Iran’s deal violations in darker colors.
And those “marginal” violations, as they’ve been so far described, are numerous. Iran has habitually produced more uranium and heavy water than the deal allows. It has procured dual-use materiel and tested nuclear-capable missiles.
Meanwhile, Iran continues its aggressive behavior, attacking US ships in international waters and holding Americans hostage. It helps fuel regional wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and arms and bolsters Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists.
The reason the mullahs do all that with impunity is that we have few tools left to confront them. We gave them everything — unfrozen assets, sanctions relief — up front. All we asked in return was that they do their part — nuclear restrictions, periodic on-site inspections — during a dozen-year stretch.
So Iran could decide to just pocket those perks and walk away now, declaring that America is violating the deal. In fact, they’ve already started the process.
The smarmy Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN on Sunday that Trump is in “violation of not the spirit, but of the letter” of the deal. As the extreme anti-American wing of the all-powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps gains confidence, it may well force a collapse of the deal it’s been opposed to from the outset.
Problem is, some of our allies, and certainly China and Russia, may well buy the argument that America is at fault for the collapse.
Either way, far from the unassailable piece of state craftsmanship that the deal is widely advertised to be, Monday’s qualified certification indicates that its shaky foundations are beginning to crumble.
If so — and considering that, internal debates aside, the Trump administration is full of Iran hawks — Washington better soon start moving away from the Iran deal. It’s best we, not the mullahs or their global allies, control the process of its demise.