President Donald Trump announced last Friday that he is formally ‘‘decertifying’’ the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, a deal he described as “the worst… ever” and criticised repeatedly during his presidential campaign. The immediate practical effect is not to terminate it, but to pass the buck to Congress, which now has 60 days to decide whether it should re-impose sanctions against Iran. Decertification may not, on its own, cause a “renewed nuclear crisis” with Iran, but it could be the “first pebble in a landslide”, warns Richard Nephew in the Financial Times.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a highly technical agreement between the US, Iran, China, France, Russia, the UK and Germany, is essentially a “very simple transaction”, says Zack Beauchamp on Vox.com. In return for strict limits on its nuclear programme, the other countries relaxed sanctions imposed on Iran. So crucial did Barack Obama consider the deal to averting “all-out war in the Middle East and possibly beyond”, that he believed that inaction in Syria against the Assad regime (Iran’s “protégé”) was a price worth paying, says Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian.
Because many members of the Obama administration were sceptical at the time, a law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act was subsequently enacted which obliges the US president to publicly certify every 90 days that Iran is in technical compliance with the deal and, more broadly, that suspension of sanctions is appropriate. Trump insisted last week that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the deal”.
However, the evidence that the deal is working is in fact very clear, says Beauchamp. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is compliant. The leaders of France, Germany and the UK said in a joint statement that they were committed to the deal and concerned by Trump’s refusal to back it. Officials warn that if the deal collapses, it could severely hamper efforts to stop the proliferation of atomic weapons.
It would be “the worst of all possible worlds”, continues Beauchamp. Since the deal is “working on technical grounds”, European powers – which do more business with Iran than the US and can impose more painful sanctions – probably wouldn’t reimpose sanctions if the US “unilaterally destroyed the agreement”. A US exit therefore wouldn’t really hurt Iran but it would provide the regime with a pretext to “kick out” IAEA inspectors and “ramp up” its nuclear programme.
Trump’s objectives aren’t even clear, says Richard Nephew. Chasing a better deal is a “chimera”. Why would Iran’s leaders accept an agreement in which they “give more to receive the same benefits of the existing JCPOA”? It is much more likely to “play a waiting game, building up partnerships and alliances around the world by playing on international hostility towards Mr Trump”.
His position defies logic, agrees Hooman Majd in the Washington Post. It won’t change Iranian behaviour or eliminate a single ballistic missile, and it will signal that American negotiators are not to be trusted and validate Iranian hard-liners while undermining reformers and pragmatists. It could also turn the “most pro-American population” in the region into one of the most hostile.
Trump’s move does make sense on one level, however, say David Miller and Richard Sokolsky on CNN. It’s another policy “driven largely by Trump’s campaign commitments and the peculiarities of his own ego”. From his decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership to immigration clampdowns, his initiatives seem designed to satisfy his base, fulfil his campaign commitments and “overturn his predecessor’s… domestic and foreign policy accomplishments.”