Trump recertifies Iran compliance -- while blasting agreement

Donald Trump campaigned for president in part by attacking Barack Obama’s pact with Iran as a “terrible” deal that he would immediately re-engineer. Few could have predicted that a President Trump would uphold the deal once, let alone twice. Even so, Trump reported to Congress yesterday as required by the deal on the status of Iran’s compliance by affirming that they remain within the letter of the agreement. But he didn’t go gently down that path:

The U.S. has certified with Congress that Iran is legally in compliance on the nuclear deal, but senior Trump administration officials said both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump will couch that certification with an accusation that Iran is “unquestionably in default of the spirit of the [agreement].”

The officials pointed to “a range of malign activities” including Iran’s ballistic missile development, support of militant groups in the region and Syria’s Assad regime, its hostility to Israel and its continued detention of foreigners including U.S. citizens.

The officials said that moving forward the administration will “employ a strategy” that seeks to address Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region.

Trump first made that finding of compliance in April, but did so reluctantly, hoping to get allies in line with a new strategy to force the issue with Iran. According to the New York Times’ Peter Baker, Trump exploded in a meeting yesterday when told his team needed more time to work and that another finding of compliance would be necessary:

Mr. Trump did not want to certify Iran’s compliance the first time around either, but was talked into it on the condition that his team come back with a new strategy to confront Tehran, the official said. Last week, advisers told the president they needed more time to work with allies and Congress. Mr. Trump responded that before he would go along, they had to meet certain conditions, said the official, who would not outline what the conditions were.

While Mr. Trump headed to Paris and then spent the weekend in New Jersey, his team developed a strategy that it hoped would satisfy him and planned to notify Congress and make the case publicly on Monday. But even as allies were quietly being informed, Mr. Trump balked when he heard the plan at his morning security briefing, the official said. The argument continued during a separate meeting with Mr. Tillerson as Mr. Trump pressed for more action, the official said.

Suddenly, a background briefing to announce the decision was postponed and Mr. Spicer was sent out to assure reporters that a decision would be coming “very shortly,” while aides scrambled to satisfy Mr. Trump. He agreed only late in the day after a final meeting in the Oval Office, in effect telling his advisers that he was giving them another chance and this time they had to deliver. The announcement was then rescheduled for the early evening and a notice was sent to Congress to continue withholding nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

The finding ties Congress’ hands on reapplying sanctions to a certain extent. They can respond to specific violations by Iran with targeted sanctions that correspond to the violation. While the White House finds Iran in overall compliance, however, Congress cannot reinstate the broader sanctions that Obama’s deal eliminated. Trump’s frustration with certifying compliance is therefore twofold: it keeps the US from its full range of options in dealing with an unrepentant Iran, and it undermines what is apparently a strongly held position of Trump’s on the deal.

Accordingly, the message of compliance was accompanied by a statement clarifying the malign nature of the regime in Tehran:

On Monday, even as they said Iran was complying with the deal, senior administration officials took steps to bash the agreement, pointing out, for instance, that its provisions are not permanent. Although the agreement is strictly about Iran’s nuclear program, the officials argued that Tehran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the deal because of its interference in neighboring countries, its human rights abuses and other activities.

Officials on Monday did not say when the new round of sanctions would be imposed. The U.S. argues that it retains the right to impose non-nuclear related sanctions on Iran despite the 2015 agreement. But such moves could lead Tehran to allege that Washington is the one violating the spirit of the deal — and prompt its ultimate unraveling.

Baker points out that this might be a purposeful strategy by the White House:

In an interview on Monday with Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, a foreign policy journal, Mr. Zarif raised the prospect that Iran would be the one to back out. “If it comes to a major violation, or what in the terms of the nuclear deal is called significant nonperformance, then Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal,” he said.

That would be an outcome welcomed by the Trump administration. Top officials like Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis have expressed concern about the effect on American relations with European allies if Mr. Trump were to unilaterally pull out, especially after he already announced his intention to back out of the Paris climate change accord that Europeans strongly support.

It’s a classic briar-patch strategy, with only two flaws. First, it’s too obvious; it’s like trying reverse psychology on an offspring that’s already in his thirties. Second, Iran has no reason to withdraw. They’re getting all the benefit of the deal, and can still easily hide their progress on a nuclear weapon. They’re also in no rush to produce one any longer; thanks to the fall of Saddam Hussein and Iran’s growing alliance with Russia, there’s no one that will attack Iran in a frontal military assault now. They can afford to wait us out more than they can afford to get cut off from the international banking system again.

In order for sanctions to bite, Trump has to convince Western allies to reunite to impose them globally. That’s one reason why Trump has had to recertify the deal twice — our allies have no appetite for that kind of sanctions regime with Iran any longer, and probably don’t trust the US to stick with it after Obama’s sudden shift two years ago. If Trump wants to pull out of the deal, he’ll have to go it alone, and in doing so will make it easy for Iran to evade the consequences.

In the meantime, Trump still has some room to operate: