Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump, on the other hand, is risking a war – and torching US credibility.
Despite heavy competition, US President Donald Trump’s latest Iran move ranks near the top of the list of the most reckless actions of this ever-so-reckless presidency. The president announced recently that he was refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the landmark nuclear agreement it reached with the US and several other world powers during the Obama administration.
This dangerous move won’t scuttle the deal entirely – at least not yet – but it undermines the strength of the international agreement and ultimately increases the threat of war. While Trump has said he’s not pulling out of the deal just now, he’s threatening to do so if Congress doesn’t pass new sanctions .
With virtually every Iran expert on the planet in agreement that Tehran is keeping its end of the nuclear deal, it’s clear that Trump’s motives are purely political. But if anything that makes his decision only more dangerous.
The Iran nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – is widely recognised as one of former president Barack Obama’s most important diplomatic successes. And it’s working exactly as it was designed to do.
The UN nuclear inspection agency, the US intelligence community, and every serious expert on Iran’s nuclear program from across the globe all agree that Iran is complying with the requirements of the deal. That means, among other things, that Iran’s supply of low enriched uranium is now about 1% of what it used to be, it has no highly enriched uranium, and its nuclear program is under tight international inspection.
In withdrawing from a deal that Iran was keeping in good faith, Trump abandoned any pretense of maintaining US credibility as a reliable negotiating partner. Instead, he justified decertifying Iranian compliance with a combination of exaggerations, complaints about actions that have nothing to do with the actual terms of the deal, and outright lies.
In remarks announcing his action, Trump claimed that “the Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement – for example, they exceeded the 130 metric ton limit of heavy water.” As the Guardian pointed out, that statement was “misleading at best. On two occasions, Iran’s stockpile of heavy water flowed over the ceiling imposed by the deal, but the situation was quickly rectified and Iran’s reserve is now below the limit. Nor is heavy water a direct proliferation threat.”
He also tossed out the line, without a shred of evidence, that “many people believe Iran is dealing with North Korea.”
He lied about Iran getting “paid up front” when the deal was signed, “rather than at the end of the deal when they have shown they’ve played by the rules.” Trump implied this was a payout from the West to Iran, but didn’t mention this was Iran’s own money, long frozen by the United States and its allies. And in point of fact, those funds weren’t released until the UN nuclear inspectors had determined that Tehran was indeed complying with the rules.
Finally, Trump lied about conditions inside Iran, claiming that the deal resulted in sanctions being lifted “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.” Despite US threats and crippling sanctions (which had far more impact on Iran’s civilian population than on the government), the Iranian regime was and remains very far from “total collapse.”
Trump also refused to acknowledge that Iran and the US are actually fighting on the same side across the region. Washington and Tehran support the same governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And both have deployed troops and planes to fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. (Of course, this isn’t particularly good news – both the Afghan and Iraqi governments are deeply corrupt, and the US and Iran have each been responsible for war crimes in Syria – but it shows the hypocrisy in Trump’s deeply oppositional view of Iran.)
Furthermore, while they support different sides in the Syrian civil war, US and Iranian military forces are often close together, and remain in constant communication to prevent any friendly fire attacks on each other. Indeed, while Trump announced new sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for their alleged support for terrorism, he was careful not to add the IRGC to Washington’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, because that would threaten US soldiers fighting near IRGC troops in Syria.
Because Trump couldn’t point to any actual violations of the terms of JCPOA by Iran, he claimed instead that Tehran “is not living up to the spirit of the deal.” He condemned Iran’s missile developments, bemoaning the deal’s “failure” to deal with them. But of course, it wasn’t a deal about missile technology – it was a deal about nuclear enrichment. That was the only way to get all sides on board, and scuttling it when Iran’s in compliance will inevitably make it more difficult to strike a deal on missiles or anything else in the future.
Rogue state behavior
Trump’s new Iran position doesn’t end the multi-party Iran deal; it doesn’t even pull the United States out of the deal or end US obligations under the deal – yet.
Instead, it tosses the decision back to Congress. The JCPOA is a multi-lateral agreement, not a treaty, and so didn’t have to be ratified by the Senate. But to prevent political problems, Obama negotiated a separate deal with Congress, which requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is still in compliance with the deal.
If the president refuses to do so, as Trump just did, Congress then has 60 days to decide whether or not to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. That decision would indeed violate Washington’s obligations (which included ending nuclear sanctions), and Iran and the other signatories would rightly blame the US for wrecking the deal.
Trump’s “America First” actions have seriously damaged Washington’s already-dubious standing in the world. This latest move goes further, gravely weakening international cooperation, concern for civilian populations, efforts towards non-proliferation and disarmament, respect for international law, and the credibility of the United Nations, which endorsed the deal.
It’s dangerous because it tells Iran, Washington’s negotiating partners, and the world that the United States isn’t committed to the deal it signed, and is looking for a way out. It’s dangerous because it tells North Korea that they may as well not bother negotiating with Washington, because the United States can’t be counted on to abide by its agreements.
It’s dangerous because there’s already strong anti-Iran and anti-JCPOA sentiment in Congress, as well as strong outside pressure (from Israel’s supporters, among others) on legislators to follow Trump’s reckless decision with an equally reckless move of their own. If Congress imposes new nuclear sanctions on Iran, that would threaten the real collapse of the deal – unless, as has happened before, the Iranian government shows more restraint and more political maturity than its US counterpart.
Abandoning the nuclear deal shows utter disdain for our negotiating partners in China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK, which together helped craft the deal, as well as for Iran itself. It also slaps the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the deal, which reminded signatories that they were obligated under international law “to accept and carry out the Security Council’s decisions,” including by carrying out the “full implementation” of the JCPOA.
As Iran’s UN Ambassador Javad Zarif told CBS:
“You know, the United States is a permanent member of the Security Council. And if it’s not going to uphold a resolution, that not only it voted for but it sponsored, then the credibility of the institution that the United States considers to be very important would be at stake. Nobody else will trust any US administration to engage in any long-term negotiation because the length of any commitment, the duration of any commitment from now on with any US administration would be the remainder of the term of that president.”
Trump’s cascading recklessness in his Iran policy continues to put the US, Iran, the Middle East, and indeed the world at great peril. His actions make the threat of war far more likely. And if Congress doesn’t fall into Trump’s trap, and instead rejects his demand to impose new nuclear sanctions, Trump will come face-to-face with his promise to cancel the agreement himself.
Such an act would indeed prove, to anyone not yet convinced, that the US is a rogue state.
Phyllis Bennis is a Middle East expert. She directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.