Trump’s Iran Game: More proof US foreign policy in disrepair

Trump’s decision to decertify Iran won’t end the nuclear deal, but it might make other states think twice about the US’ ability to stay the course, writes Liam Hunt. 

By: /
October 20, 2017
Trump Iran
US President Donald Trump speaks about Iran and the Iran nuclear deal in front of a portrait of President George Washington in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, US, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

No, US President Donald Trump hasn’t terminated the Iran nuclear deal.

Last Friday, President Trump refused to certify Obama’s legacy agreement with Iran and six other major world powers.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) — a legislative act that gives US Congress the power to review the deal’s implementation — requires the president to certify Iran’s full compliance with the deal at least every 90 days. If the president fails to do so, Congress is given 60 days to decide to reinstate nuclear-related sanctions against the Islamic Republic. However, under the INARA, a Republican majority in Congress is capable of pushing through new sanctions without delay from opposition across the aisle.

Despite the fanfare surrounding Trump’s recent announcement, the agreement is here to stay regardless of whether the United States decides to back out.

 The deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) is a multilateral executive agreement, not a signed treaty, and as such it does not have the force of international law. The JCPOA’s central transaction includes a dramatic extension in Iran’s nuclear “breakout time” — the time required for Iran to develop a single nuclear bomb — in exchange for Iran’s reintegration in the global economy.

Any signatory can choose to renege on their commitments without necessarily jeopardizing the agreement for any other party. This means that while the US may opt out of the JCPOA, the agreement will remain in force for Germany and the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council who were also at the bargaining table in 2015. And with multibillion-dollar trade deals now being brokered between Iran and various world powers, it’s unlikely anyone will follow in America’s footsteps.

Why, then, is Trump ready to leave the agreement? In short, he isn’t. This is because decertification says nothing of the US’ actual end game on Iran. Rather, it simply kicks the issue to Congress, leaving the president sheltered from the responsibility of imposing nuclear sanctions himself. Trump’s posturing, therefore, doesn’t signal the decline of the JCPOA, nor does it delegitimize it. In fact, the deal is working exactly as planned, with the UN nuclear watchdog’s most recent report on October 13 finding that Iran’s commitments are “being implemented…in accordance with the modalities defined by the JCPOA.”

On the congressional front, Republican leaders tasked with initiating a solution will likely face resistance from those within their own party who are opposed to snapping back sanctions that could curtail US trade interests. Even members of Trump’s own administration, such as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have all spoken publicly in support of the JCPOA.

This suggests the underlying motive for Trump’s refusal to certify the accord: to protect his own reputation as a hardline opponent of the Iranian regime, and to spare him the embarrassment of regularly endorsing an agreement he has criticized for so long.

Canada’s careful approach

North of the border, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland announced, also on October 13, a $1.5-million funding package from the Government of Canada to support the International Atomic Energy Agency’s verification efforts. This adds to the $11.5 million that Canada has contributed to the nuclear watchdog since the JCPOA’s signing in July 2015. “Canada believes that the JCPOA is essential in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability and in ensuring greater regional and global security,” reads the statement from Global Affairs Canada.  

This announcement was made in the wake of Bill S-219’s third reading in the Canadian Senate. If passed into law, the “Non-Nuclear Sanctions Against Iran Act” would impose the most world’s most severe economic restrictions against the Islamic Republic. However, as its title suggests, the proposed sanctions are unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program, which is under the watchful eye of international monitors. Instead, the sanctions would take aim at Iran’s ballistic missile development, human rights record and state-sponsorship of terror groups. This carefully refrains from imposing nuclear-related sanctions that would violate the letter of the JCPOA and spoil any chance of restoring formal diplomatic ties with Tehran, which Canada has gone without since 2012.  

The proposed sanctions on both sides of the Canada-US border differ in their intent, with US leaders specifically singling out the JCPOA. Trump perceives the agreement as being ineffective, flawed, and in need of re-negotiation. In turn, snapping back nuclear sanctions would sever their position in the agreement and, in theory, bring Tehran back to the bargaining table. Canada considers the agreement a vital force for regional stability and “essential in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” according to last Friday’s press release. This is why if Canada’s Bill S-219 imposes a new round of sanctions against Iran it would, in principle, cautiously avoid any material breach of the JCPOA. Although both Canada and the US are readying to sanction Tehran, America is alone in its resistance to the nuclear agreement.   

Back in the US, it’s now in Congress’s hands to craft a legislative solution to the Iran issue. However, it remains to be seen whether they are sufficiently motivated to endanger their position on an agreement that’s practically invulnerable to the actions of any one party. The JCPOA is a landmark achievement in multilateral diplomacy, and one that will require a multilateral effort to cause its undoing. If Congress does decide to restore sanctions against Tehran, they will almost certainly be alone in doing so. In the end, this will result in nothing more than unnecessary trade restrictions for American businesses while Airbus, Total S.A., and other European multinationals continue to ink new agreements with Iran. 

While Trump’s domestic agenda has stalled, the confused Iran stance is another example of a foreign policy agenda in serious disrepair. Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress have the power to burn American influence in the international arena. Although the Iran deal is unlikely to fall apart at the hands of American lawmakers, US credibility is certainly at stake, as is any hope for restoring bilateral relations with Iran to that of the Obama era. 

At best, reinstating sanctions will honour the president’s campaign pledge while damaging the country’s reputation for resolve. At worst, it could deter other states from engaging in arms control agreements with an America proven unreliable in upholding their side of the deal.