US President Donald Trump has announced he will not certify that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Deal. What this means for the future of the deal and Middle Eastern policy more generally is uncertain but, based on educated guesses (little more than futurologists of foreign policy have) we can argue it will be more a symbolic gesture than any serious change in US foreign policy towards Iran.
‘it seems trump is not keen to unilaterally withdraw from the deal.’
Under the May 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, passed in anticipation of a deal later that summer, the President is required every 90 days to certify to Congress that Iran is complying with any agreement the US has come to with them regarding their nuclear programme. The Iran Deal is neither a treaty (which would require an impossible two thirds majority in the Senate to ratify) or an executive agreement, since sanctions and trade policy are largely a matter for Congress, but merely a non-binding agreement signed by the US. This meant that the US could cease complying with the deal at any time with no international legal implications. Obama’s major foreign policy accomplishments, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Change agreement were generally signed in such a way as to make it easy to undo them.
‘Some even speculate trump aims to police the agreement so thoroughly that Iran withdraws from it of their own accord.’
However, unlike those two agreements, it seems Trump is not keen to unilaterally withdraw from the deal. In his statement announcing de-certification he asked Congress to pass new laws that would trigger sanctions on Iran if they get closer to constructing a nuclear weapon. Observers of US Politics may notice right now that the current Congress has been largely unable to get anything done; if they can’t agree on a replacement to Obamacare it’s unlikely they’ll be able to agree on a replacement to the Iran Deal. The deal’s opponents do not have the sixty votes needed in the Senate to overcome filibustering rules, and they may not even have the fifty given that many 2015 opponents of the deal such as Chuck Schumer and Rand Paul have become pragmatists who would rather keep the deal as it is than try and start anew. So, much like Obamacare, it may well be that the Iran Deal remains in place by default.
Trump’s moderate stance on the Iran Deal should not surprise anyone. Of the 17 Republicans who ran for his job Trump was by no means the most hostile to the deal; compared to Ted Cruz (who said he would completely withdraw the US from the agreement on his first day in office) Donald Trump mainly objected that he could have got a better deal than Obama. Now, though, it is signed that he will ‘police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance [to get a nuclear weapon]’. With the usual caveats about discerning the foreign policy of Donald Trump – this is probably his overall strategy. Trump is going to ‘police’ the deal rather than disband it, and possibly institute new rules via Congress that do not violate the terms of the deal, but in practice amount to a unilateral reworking of it to hammer out concerns some Americans have with the deal. Some even speculate he aims to police the agreement so thoroughly that Iran withdraws from it, therefore allowing the US to blame Iran for a new period of fractious relations before the great negotiator Trump gets the US a better deal from scratch.
‘this all gives iran a better negotiating position given the lack of a unified front of western powers.’
But if Trump refusing to certify is merely policing the contract, what has changed since July 2017? Has Iran really stopped complying with the deal in those intervening three months? Why has he changed course now? While Iran did test a new 1200-mile range missile in September, the focus of the Iran Deal is more on nuclear enrichment not missile capabilities and so such tests are not really in violation of the words of the deal. Trump’s new tougher strategy is most likely to appease the neoconservatives in his administration and in Congress who are disappointed with Trump’s tendency to talk tough on Iran while doing nothing. Decertification, while still a symbolic gesture, allows Trump to kick the can to Congress, who will likely miss the sixty-day deadline to pass new sanctions or trigger points, allowing Trump to blame Congress for the survival of the Iran Deal just as he blames them for the survival of Obamacare.
And this nuanced approach is understood among international diplomats. The leaders of the other P5 countries have all publicly called on the USA to keep the Iran Deal but are privately grateful that he has not withdrawn the US from the agreement. That said, it cannot strengthen the US’s negotiating position with other countries if Trump forces a divisive clash regarding foreign policy within his own government just to appease the domestic interest of groups keen for war with Iran. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has announced that if the US were to withdraw completely, the European Union would ally with China and Russia in keeping the agreement. Trump has also held out the prospect of the EU withdrawing from the agreement, an unlikely prospect given the economic harm that would do to their already flailing economy. The divergence between US and EU policy on Iran threatens their cooperation on nuclear proliferation and sanctions generally, as well as allowing Iran a better negotiating position given the lack of a unified front of the Western Powers.
So, while Trump’s move contains very little in the way of substance, it does manage to undermine his own credibility when it comes to foreign policy, and if Congress does pull the US out of the Iran Deal, it could potentially leave the US and Europe out of lockstep on Middle East policy for the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Trump’s aim is to either renegotiate the deal himself, or, more likely, leave it in place but blame Congress for their reticence. For now, the Iran Deal remains on its shaky foundations.