A virtual war for Washington broke out last week. Principals in the administration were in a battle over whether to certify Iran was in accord with U.S. law and terms of the nuclear deal. On one side were President Trump, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo; they urged Trump to change course and say Iran was not in accord, per the AP.
The other side included Secretary of State Tillerson and the generals, Jim Mattis at Defense, and H.R. McMaster at the White House, Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the other major powers involved in the nuclear accord — Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the deal was not a signed document.)
The bottom line up front: President Trump controls Iran policy of certification to the Congress that Iran had met the relevant conditions of U.S. law and the nuclear accord. But at what cost? Read on!
State, Treasury and Justice designated 18 individuals and entities they said were involved in activities including missile development, weapons procurement, and software theft. However, there is confusion over the facts about certification.
The 2015 Corker-Cardin certification requires the Trump administration certify every 90 days Iran has met four conditions related to the nuclear deal: Tehran is implementing the deal; Iran is not in material breach; is not advancing its nuclear weapons program; and sanctions relief is appropriate as well as vital for U.S. national security.
Corker-Cardin does not require certification Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. It allows certification to the Congress, even if Tehran is violating the deal.
On July 17, President Trump certified Iran had met the four Corker-Cardin conditions, not that Tehran was complying with the nuclear deal. Trump had officials remove language suggesting Iranian compliance, certification that included a list of Iranian violations. Otherwise the president was going to reject certification.
In two email messages to me (and others) on July 19, Omri Ceren of The Israel Project (TIP) said Tehran’s cheating does not make an immediate political difference: So long as the Corker-Cardin conditions for certification are met, the deal stays in place, despite Iran’s noncompliance. But Tehran’s cheating does make an enormous policy difference, all the way up to gutting the deal.
“Systematic noncompliance at the margins, never enough to breach the deal all at once, can enable Iran to erode a range of restrictions on centrifuges, nuclear material, [and] weapons,” until the cumulative effect is to reduce the time needed to build a deliverable nuclear bomb to a few weeks, per the email from Ceren.
Also see an Associated Press story, “Trump lets Iran deal live, but signals he may not for long.” Trump was eager to declare Iran in breach of the nuclear deal but was talked out of it by national security aides who rushed to the Oval Office to persuade him as a midnight deadline approached, administration officials say.
Trump agreed to let the issue go, but only for a few more months, and only after last-minute changes to distance him further from the deal. Rather than say, as planned, Iran was living up to its end of the deal, his aides found a way to let the deal continue for now without technically confirming Iran is complying. Team Trump followed up the announcement with new, nonnuclear sanctions on Iranians citizens on Tuesday to show he is serious about confronting Tehran.
The compromise, relayed to the Congress in the final few hours before the deadline, lets Iran continue enjoying relief — for now — from nuclear sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 deal. It also gives Trump some cover to declare publicly that Iran is violating “the spirit” of the deal, preserving a potent argument should he ultimately decide to exit the accord, per the AP.
The argument that ultimately won out: Letting Iran keep its sanctions relief — thus fulfilling U.S. obligations under the deal — without using the word “complying.” Trump and other critics pointed to minor infractions by Tehran to say it’s in violation of restrictions on nuclear development, although the International Atomic Energy Agency that monitors the deal says Iran is broadly complying, per the email correspondence from Ceren referenced above. A shout-out to him for providing many journalists and scholars information and his take on the facts.
The Way Forward
At issue now is the State Department’s annual Counterterrorism Report, which was announced June 19, for the year 2016. Regarding Iran, it repeats the history of Tehran’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984 and brings that history forward to 2016:
Iran continued its terrorist-related activity in 2016, including support for Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various groups in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the Middle East. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps‑Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to implement foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East. Iran has acknowledged the involvement of the IRGC-QF in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the IRGC-QF is Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad.
Also see Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. Under President Obama prior reports from State detailed Iran’s misbehavior, but the pursuit of the nuclear deal seemed at odds with State’s catalog of Tehran’s actions. But for President Trump, his skepticism about the accord is bound to be more consistent with the State Department’s details of Iran’s misbehavior than for Obama.
And with respect to State’s tougher line against Iran, consistent with President Trump’s wishes, Heather Nauert, Department’s Spokesperson, on July 18 said:
Iran’s continued malign activities outside the nuclear issue undermine the positive contributions to regional and international peace and security that the deal was supposed to provide. The United States will continue to use sanctions to target those who lend support to Iran’s destabilizing behavior and above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
As stated above in the bottom line up front — President Trump controls Iran policy. The policy is that Washington certifies to the Congress, even if Tehran is violating the deal, not that Iran is in compliance with the deal.
But what cost does this American policy incur? The price might be loss of American leadership with its closest allies that are party to the nuclear accord. They include Britain, France, and Germany. But where can the allies turn? Surely, not to China and Russia, the other two parties in the deal. So, the benefits outweigh the costs by a wide margin.
Prof. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Tanter is on the comprehensive list of conservative writers and columnists who appear in The Wall Street Journal, Townhall.com, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events, The American Spectator, and now in Newsmax. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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