The Weekly Standard, October 10, 2017 – Presidential candidate Donald Trump disparaged the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran in characteristically superlative terms: “My number-one priority,” he said to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 20 16, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran. I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making, and let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic—for America, for Israel, and for the whole Middle East. . . . We have rewarded the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with $150 billion, and we received absolutely nothing in return.”
We didn’t disagree with Trump’s reasoning then, and we don’t now. This magazine has been sharply critical of much the president has done, but on two vital questions—Iran and North Korea—we believe his instincts are sound. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, negotiated by the Obama administration and signed in 2015, took pressure off one of the world’s most aggressive sponsors of terrorism in exchange for empty promises not to pursue its aim of building a nuclear weapon. The deal was, indeed, catastrophic.
Congress never ratified it, but lawmakers did codify some oversight. The 2015 Corker-Cardin act requires the president to “certify” Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal every 90 days. When certifying the deal, the president must avow four points: that Iran is “transparently, verifiably, and fully” implementing the agreement; that Iran “has not committed a material breach with respect to the agreement”; that it’s taken no action, “including covert activities, that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program”; and that continuing to suspend sanctions is in the U.S. national interest.
It is unassailably obvious that the Iranian regime has not complied with the agreement. The Iranians have not given international inspectors unfettered access to nuclear and military facilities, as the agreement requires. They have attempted to acquire banned nuclear and missile technology. They have exceeded the agreement’s limits on advanced centrifuges and heavy-water production. They continue, moreover, to sponsor terrorism around the world and abet the brutalities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Trump made the decision to certify Iran’s compliance in July, by all accounts against his instincts, having been talked into it by some of his closest advisers, as Stephen F. Hayes and Michael Warren show elsewhere in these pages. Three months ago the administration squared the circle by declaring the Iranians to be in “technical compliance” with the agreement but “in default of the spirit”—a reasonable ploy to buy time while the administration figured out what to do next.
How the months flew by! The problem is here again—the deadline is October 15—and the president by all reports is leaning toward refusing to certify compliance.
That will bring its own set of problems, to be sure. Congress would have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose the sanctions lifted when the JCPOA came into force. Trump’s national security advisers appear to have no illusions about Iran and reject Obama’s woefully misguided notion of a U.S.-Iran partnership for Middle East security. They also know that the Iran deal is a fact. The danger of walking away from the agreement is not that Iran will feel emboldened to continue pursuing its nuclear program and exporting terror—it’s already doing both. The danger, as Reuel Marc Gerecht explains elsewhere in these pages, is that Iran will more aggressively undermine American interests in the region at a time when the United States is already in retreat from it. President Trump hasn’t given any indication of having a strategic vision for the Middle East. That, we assume, is why Secretary of Defense James Mattis told a Senate committee on October 3 that he thought preserving the agreement was in America’s interest.
Maybe. But the administration’s credibility is at stake. The president has said, repeatedly and in strident terms, that the JCPOA is a bad deal for the United States. If Trump once again gives his blessing to an agreement he believes to be “disastrous” and “catastrophic,” the Iranians will draw the wholly valid conclusion that the 45th president is as weak and naïve as the 44th. So will rogue regimes and terrorist organizations around the world.
Some reports suggest that Trump may refuse to certify the deal, as we urge him to do. But that’s more than a matter of not signing a document. It will take resolve. It will require imposing a new program of executive-branch sanctions on the regime and particularly on its Revolutionary Guard Corps, and it will require a substantially increased level of commitment and vigilance on the part of the U.S. military.
Iran’s ruling elite are increasingly restive because the 2015 nuclear deal, though it eased some sanctions in return for minimal alterations in the regime’s behavior, has not resulted in the high levels of foreign investment they hoped for. They need money. The credible threat of new and tough sanctions, together with more deliberate engagement in Syria and Iraq, may bring the country’s clerical rulers to a more compliant state of mind.
Trump has the right instincts on Iran. We hope he also has resolve.