Punts Congress: President Trump Puts Iran Nuclear Deal In Limbo

by Ike Obudulu Posted on October 13th, 2017

Washington, DC, USA: Faced with a Sunday deadline, US President Donald Trump struck a formal blow against the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in an address Friday afternoon, but stopped short of asking Congress to re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Instead, Trump urged Congress to pass a new law, spelling out conditions under which sanctions could be re-imposed. Congress requires the president to re-evaluate ( or certify) the deal every 90 days. The next deadline for him to do so is Sunday, October 15.

“What is the purpose of a deal that at best only delays Iran’s nuclear capability for a short period of time? This as president of the United States is unacceptable,” he said.

While Trump has long criticized the nuclear deal as “an embarrassment,” he has twice before reluctantly certified the agreement, acknowledging that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal and that the deal itself is in the U.S. national interest. Trump is refusing to certify the deal for a third time.

“We cannot and will not make this certification,” he said. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

While the move does not automatically end the deal, it initiates a window for Congress to potentially pass sanctions that would break the agreement.

Trump said he is directing the administration “to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.”

“We don’t dispute that they’re under technical compliance,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of the Iranians in a briefing with reporters. He suggested the president’s decision is based on an assessment of Iran’s overall conduct, balanced against the sanctions relief granted by the agreement. On Friday, Trump said the regime “has committed multiple violations of the agreement.”

By refusing to certify the deal, Tillerson said President Trump hopes to signal to Tehran and other international players that it’s time to come back to the bargaining table.

“This is the pathway we think provides us the best platform from which to attempt to fix this deal,” Tillerson said.

He acknowledged that Iran is unlikely to reopen talks on the existing nuclear agreement, but suggested the U.S. and its allies might be able to negotiate a follow-on deal, that would pick up where the nuclear pact leaves off.

“We may be unsuccessful. We may not be able to fix it,” Tillerson said. “I think what he’s saying is, ‘Look, we’ll try.’ ”

Separately, the president will call for new sanctions on people and entities associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Tillerson says those penalties don’t conflict with the existing nuclear deal.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, for example, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 3 that preserving the nuclear deal is in the U.S. interest.

Opponents of the agreement complain that even if it’s working to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it hasn’t stopped the country from supporting Hamas and Hezbollah or making mischief in other ways.

Decertification opens a 60-day window in which Congress could use a fast-track process to re-impose the economic sanctions on Iran that were relaxed under the nuclear agreement.

Germany, France and Britain have all reaffirmed their commitment to the nuclear deal, as have the other signatories, China and Russia.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., called the administration’s plan “a risky gamble” in statement on Friday.

“It’s the first step toward withdrawing from the agreement keeping Iran from building the bomb,” he added. “Our allies and adversaries alike will see this as a signal that the United States doesn’t live up to our commitments, making the United States a source of uncertainty instead of a force for solving serious problems.”

Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations has said the president is not concerned with international opinion.

“It has never moved the U.S. to care about what other countries say,” Nikki Haley told reporters in September. “What does move the president is, are we doing everything in the best interest — security interest — for the American people. And that’s what you’re seeing is playing out.”

Another danger for the decertification-as-bargaining-chip strategy is that Congress could actually exercise its option to re-impose sanctions right away — which would amount to a breach of the agreement by the United States.

Tillerson said the administration had been quietly lobbying lawmakers for weeks to choose a middle path — preserving sanctions relief for now but signaling tough new sanctions if Iran fails to clean up its act.

“I don’t want to suggest to you this is a slam dunk up there on the Hill. We know it’s not,” Tillerson said. “This is a bit of a complicated issue.”

Supporters of the nuclear deal, both inside and outside the U.S. are now focusing on Congress in an effort to preserve the agreement.

The Obama administration drew a distinction between Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and its bad conduct in other areas. Many in the Trump administration do not.

The lifting of sanctions under the nuclear deal has already been a boon for some U.S. businesses. Boeing, for example, has inked deals to sell Iran jetliners worth nearly $20 billion. The potential for growing economic ties is one reason the deal’s opponents are eager to move quickly.

There are some signs that Iran is feeling the pressure from the president’s upcoming decision. Iran signaled its willingness at the U.N. general assembly in September to open talks with the other parties to the nuclear deal over its ballistic missile program.

What You Should Know About The ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal

Iran, the United States and five other world powers reached a landmark agreement in Vienna, Austria in 2015 about the future of Iran’s nuclear programs. World powers agreed to give Iran relief from some economic sanctions in return for inspections and limits on its nuclear program. Since the nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — took effect in January 2016, Iran has allowed inspections and is seeing some economic payoff:

1. It Would Curb Iran’s Nuclear Programs: As President Obama put it in a speech to the nation, the highlight of this deal is that it aims to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In practical terms, it puts limits on many of Iran’s nuclear programs. For example:

Iran agreed to turn its Fordow facility into a research center where Iranian and world scientists will work side by side. Fordow, was at the center of international worry, because for years, experts have believed that Iran was enriching uranium in centrifuges there. Another worry: The facility is located underground, which would make it less vulnerable to a military strike.

Iran also agreed to rebuild its Arak heavy-water reactor, which is currently the only site in Iran capable of starting production on weapons-grade plutonium. Under the deal, the site would be rebuilt using a design approved by the international community. The design’s point would be to make the production of weapons-grade plutonium impossible.

The agreement called for Iran to give up most of its centrifuges. Under the deal, Iran would go from having 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to having 6,104 for the next 10 years. Under the deal, Iran also agreed to give up its most advanced centrifuges and use only their oldest models.

But It Still Allowed Iran To Continue Enrichment: This part of the deal could be seen as a big win for Iran. The country has always maintained that its nuclear program is being used for peaceful purposes and it has always wanted the international community to acknowledge its right to enrich uranium and use it for those purposes.

The deal allowed Iran to continue doing just that at its Natanz facility, but the country would only be allowed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.67 percent, which is enough for civilian purposes such as power plants but is much lower than what’s needed for a weapon.

Another big part of the deal is that Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.

As one U.S. administration official, who briefed reporters on background at the time, put it, Iran had 10,000 kg of enriched uranium. The country also had some additional uranium that is enriched at 20 percent.

Under the deal, Iran could keep 300 kg — enriched at no more than 3.67 percent — for the next 15 years. More than likely, Iran will get rid of what it couldn’t keep by shipping it to Russia.

The bottom line: If it honors the deal, Iran would not have the kind of fissile material it needs for a nuclear bomb, but at the same time it does receive a nod from the international community that it can indeed keep a non-military nuclear program going.

3. The U.S. Says The Deal Makes An Iranian Nuclear Bomb More Difficult: Critics of the deal — Then House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among them — believed that this is a bad deal because it doesn’t entirely dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. In a speech to the nation, President Obama said that while that is true, this deal extends Iran’s “breakout time” — or the time it would take the country to make enough highly enriched material for a nuclear bomb.

The Obama White House estimated that at that moment, Iran’s breakout time is two to three months. The White House estimates that if the deal were implemented and Iran were to someday walk away from it, the breakout time would be a year or more. Perhaps the biggest unknown is what happens to that breakout time once some of the terms of this deal start to expire in 10 and 15 years.

If Iran Doesn’t Comply, Sanctions Can Return: The diplomats danced around the language of this part of the deal. The Obama administration, for example, said the deal includes a “snap back” provision, which means United Nations’ sanctions — the most punishing of the bunch — would be slapped back on Iran if it doesn’t meet its obligations. But just hours after the deal was announced, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted: “Upon #IranDeal implementation all sanctions will be lifted—not suspended. Otherwise,there was no need for 18-day round-the-clock #IranTalks”

It’s semantics. Turns out they are both right. The deal lays out a scheme in which if there is a dispute about Iran meeting its obligations, the full U.N. Security Council would “vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting.” That’s what the U.S. calls a snap back and what Iran calls lifted — not suspended — sanctions.

5. The Iran Nuclear Deal Set Up A Comprehensive Inspections Regime: This is a big part of this deal. According to a White House fact sheet, the deal gave inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency “extraordinary and robust” access to Iranian facilities. Obama said this would give inspectors access 24/7.

Will decertification kill the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal?

The short answer is no. By U.S. law the Iran deal is neither a formal treaty nor an executive agreement but a “non-binding political commitment.” It would take actual action to break the deal. The agreement will not be invalidated if the Trump administration says it is no longer in favor or committed to it.

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