It’s a banner day for bad deals, apparently. After spending two years denouncing Barack Obama’s deal with Iran as the worst of all time, Donald Trump has certified Iran’s adherence to it on multiple occasions, always while grumbling that he’ll cancel the deal soon. Instead, Reuters reports today that the White House will approve the next stage of sanctions relief spelled out in the accord:
The United States on Thursday will announce that it will extend wide sanctions relief for Iran called for under the 2015 nuclear deal, sources familiar with the matter said, but no decision on whether to preserve the deal itself has yet been made.
The United States will renew a waiver of the key, and most punitive, sanctions that it imposed on Iran before the nuclear deal was ultimately struck. Under these, tucked into Section 1245 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, Washington threatened to sanction the banks of Iran’s main oil customers if they did not significantly cut their purchases of Iranian crude.
ABC News’s sources tell them the same, even after Nikki Haley delivered a condemnation of Iran’s activities at the UN last week:
The Trump administration is set to sign off on a new round of waivers of sanctions against Iran that will keep the U.S. in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal as the president determines what to do next, multiple sources tell ABC News.
Trump faces a deadline today when the U.S. must waive sanctions against Iran or let them snap back into place, violating the nuclear agreement and likely destroying it. The White House has yet to publicly announce a decision on what it will do while a vocal campaign including by top former Obama administration officials has been calling on the president to stay in the deal. …
In a speech last week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley laid out how and why the administration might decertify the agreement, citing Iran’s other malign activities like support for terrorism. She said, however, that it was ultimately up to the president.
According to the Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren, the Trump administration has completed its review of Iran policy, although it has made no policy decisions based on it — at least, not until now. The next deadline date for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not for another month, October 14, when Trump has to decide whether to report Iran in compliance with the deal. It would be Trump’s third opportunity to stop the Iran deal in its tracks; the last time he did so, Trump reportedly “exploded” over the necessity of certification.
If Trump rolls back sanctions now, however, that will make certification even more necessary. The longer we let sanctions go, and the more we roll them back, the less likely we are to get cooperation on imposing them from our allies — especially if we’re seen to be acting capriciously. We’d need a serious and public cassus belli to get our European partners back on board now, and we would face serious headwinds from Russia and China within the UN. The best option for canceling the deal — or better put, the least bad option — is to cancel it now and preserve the sanctions that have not yet been rolled back.
Don’t forget that Iran has already gotten most of the benefits from the deal, including access to $1.5 trillion in frozen assets and pallets of cash amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration. The JCPOA will allow the mullahs to operate without any constraints by the end of fifteen years at the most, and they’re patient enough to let that string play out, absent any sudden security crises. If Trump cancels the deal, then Iran will have problems moving its money around, but it will still have access to it — and no reason to offer even nominal compliance.
The problem for Trump is that there’s really no way to win this fight. Obama capitulated to Iran, demoralized our allies on sanctions and encirclement, and left us a hollow JCPOA as the only leverage we have. If we’re rolling back sanctions on schedule now, then the recertification next month is all but assured. We’ll get more tough talk, but the best option now is to push Iran into a serious enough violation that our allies cannot ignore it, and then act. It’s a question of which side blinks last.
Update: My good friend Jim Hanson, “Uncle Jimbo” to many of us, says to remain patient:
He told his Cabinet to bring him proof & plans to not certify when that comes due next month. He now has plans & won't certify
— Jim Hanson (@Uncle_Jimbo) September 14, 2017
— Jim Hanson (@Uncle_Jimbo) September 14, 2017
Certainly I hope this is true, but I see a major problem with this approach. As Jim says, Trump already has the plans, but he’s allowing the sanctions to roll back rather than repudiate the deal immediately. That doesn’t sound like a great way to maintain leverage. Snapping back the sanctions among our allies gets tougher the farther they unwind. If he’s got proof Iran’s cheating on the deal, why not produce it immediately while at least some of the sanctions are still in place?