President Trump swept into the United Nations General Assembly last month with all eyes on his plan for the future of the Iran deal. Standing before the world's diplomats, he declared the agreement an "embarrassment" to the U.S. and announced that he had made a decision.
In reality-TV style, he chose not to reveal what his decision was, much though his rhetoric seemed to make that obvious. "I'll let you know," he said.
The speech raised expectations that by Oct. 15 he will tell Congress that Iran is breaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It was signed by former President Barack Obama, Iran, and six other world powers in 2015. Congress later passed a law requiring the president to certify, every 90 days, that Iran is complying with its terms and that the agreement is in the vital security interests of the U.S.
Not certifying the deal could lead Trump or Congress to reimpose sanctions on Tehran that were suspended when Iran agreed to end its nuclear weapons development program and allow inspectors to check. Trump has held his nose twice to certified Iranian compliance. A third time seems less likely.
Then what? Many observers fear it could lead to Iran pulling out of the deal, stoking tension in the Middle East and upsetting European nations that back the deal and want to keep deriving commerical benefits from it.
National security hawks in Washington feel the wind at their backs and exult that Trump's speech makes withdrawal from the deal nearly certain.
"I don't think we know what the president's decision on the deal is going to be yet," former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who wants it scrapped, told the Washington Examiner. "But these were very strong comments. And when you say, among other things, that the deal is an embarrassment to the U.S., it's hard to see how you certify or stay in."
Other policy experts are not sure. One critic of the deal who is close to the White House said the odds of not certifying the deal are no better than "50-50," despite Trump's rhetoric.
This uncertainty reflects a debate unfolding, chiefly in the administration and among a cadre of Republican lawmakers, that will shift policy.
"There are no big fans of the deal within the administration," said one expert who advises the administration, on condition of anonymity. "The main divisions are, really, what do we do to try to fix the deal?"
Those discussions center on the best way to renew pressure on Iran and how to cooperate with three critical European allies, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which helped secure the pact. "All pathways run into either a huge roadblock or can be facilitated, basically, with the Europeans," the Middle East expert said.
European leaders and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's nuclear program, say the deal has succeeded in ending the mullah's quest for the atom bomb and delayed a crisis of the sort that the West is facing with North Korea.
In Washington, by contrast, American foreign policy leaders are frustrated that the Iranians have used some of the money that came with ended sanctions to bolster their military and pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the region. They say the deal allows Iran to maintain significant components of a nuclear program. The fiercest critics of the deal, including some Democrats and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thus believe Tehran will be close to acquiring a nuclear weapon when the deal expires even if they abide by it. They see no compelling reason to stick with the pact as it stands.
"Once a regime crosses a Rubicon of getting nuclear power, it totally changes the relationship," Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., told the Washington Examiner. "We're still on the side where the Iranians don't have that power, and we need to double down to make sure that they don't."
Trump's speech was consistent with a plan to certify Iranian compliance while also ratcheting up pressure on the regime and European leaders to negotiate improvements. Or, as Bolton said, it could signal a more dramatic policy change.
Either effort could be complicated by the European business community's strong support for the deal, as well as the worry that Iran will force the West to choose between a costly war and acquiescence to their acquiring nuclear weapons. "I can think of no regional issue that we have with Iran that would not be even more difficult to handle if Iran possessed nuclear weapons," David O'Sullivan, the European Union's envoy to the U.S., said last week at the Atlantic Council.
On this, American and European officials agree. But they disagree on how best to avoid that outcome. One of Washington's fiercest critics of the deal believes he has a plan to thread that needle.
Not certify, then improve
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has made himself one of the foremost critics of the Iran nuclear deal since 2015. Europeans won't like his plan, but it's not the abrupt wrecking of the JCPOA that the deal's backers most fear.
Instead, Cotton wants the president to decline to certify that Iran is in complying with the agreement. Then, instead of snapping back suspended sanctions, Trump would demand a series of improvements that Congress and European allies could take up in exchange for continued sanctions relief.
Cotton's proposal derives from the structure of the nuclear deal itself and the tactics Obama used to avoid the Senate voting it down.
As a first-year senator, Cotton wrote an open letter to Iranian leaders observing that Obama's circumvention of the Senate's authority to ratify treaties left the deal vulnerable to successive presidents. Under pressure from the president and critics such as Cotton, Congress developed an unconventional alternative to the treaty vote, called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which allowed lawmakers to vote against the deal. At the time, this process led to a clear victory for the Obama team, because INARA required a supermajority of Congress to ban implementation of the agreement.
"President Obama made a poor strategic decision," Cotton told the Washington Examiner. "He went with a simple executive agreement, [and so] it could be unwound at the stroke of a pen by the next president."
Though INARA first seemed to secure the deal for Obama, it contained a second seed of Cotton's plan. The legislation stipulates that Trump can issue that certification only if he affirms that the agreement is "vital to [American] national security interests." Iran's provocative actions in recent years, such as its ballistic missiles tests, support for terrorists and militias throughout the Middle East, along with its avowed refusal to let international monitors inspect key military facilities, have bolstered the case for such a tactic, Cotton says.
"He can't be sure they're complying because they won't give access to certain critical military sites," the Arkansas Republican said. "Even if they were complying with every single letter, word, and spirit of the JCPOA, it's still not in our national security interests. We've seen them run wild over the last two years."
Mere refusal to certify Iran's compliance with the agreement "does not put the United States in breach of the JCPOA," Cotton emphasized. That makes a Trump declaration that the deal, as currently written, is not in the national interest a potentially compelling maneuver to overcome the European fear that the Iranians will abandon the deal if pressed.
"What the president should do at that point is outline the parameters of new legislation that he would like to see to greatly strengthen the Nuclear Agreement Review Act, to fix some of the problems with the JCPOA, while also making it clear to Tehran, and to Europe and Asia, that the sword of Damocles of complete economic sanctions hangs over Iran's regime to be implemented at any moment by him unilaterally," Cotton said.
That's a high-stakes play, even for a veteran negotiator such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or the retired four-star Marine Corps general who now leads the Defense Department, Jim Mattis.
"We'll have leverage to do stuff, but it requires a lot of artful diplomacy, as well as effective economic and military hard-power coercion," the Middle East expert said on condition of anonymity. "I don't think it's fully fleshed out to the point that the U.S. principals or the European allies feel comfortable that we're not going to create a worse mess by doing this. ... It would be a colossal screwup to just pull out and then don't figure out our next step, or we just stumble into our next step."
That planning process may have been hampered over recent months by the lack of Senate-confirmed Trump appointees at the State Department and the Pentagon. But the source surmised there might be another impediment as well. "I think that because the principals, in general, don't want to go down this path, they're not in the mindset to come up with everything, to be frank," the source added. "There's kind of a sense of, are we really going to go down this path?"
But Cotton sounded a confident note. "If the president declines to certify the JCPOA under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act, then I am sure the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and every other member of his Cabinet will implement that policy," he said.
Support for the plan
Trump's team has been trying to convince the president that the deal can be improved without refusing to certify Iran's compliance, according to a second Middle East source close to the White House. "Now the truth of it is that the president will be lying if he certifies [compliance]," the second source said. "He's already said that the deal is not in our national interest."
If Trump does in fact refuse to approve the deal for a third time, Cotton can expect some bipartisan support for his plan. Twenty-five House and Senate Democrats voted against the Iran deal in 2015, with at least some hoping that a future president would revisit the issue.
"[W]e must force modifications of the agreement, and extensions of its nuclear restrictions, before it gets ugly," Calif. Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the time. "A strong congressional vote against the agreement is the best way to make it clear that the agreement is not binding on Congress, the American people or future administrations."
Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said such a move could also corral Iranian negotiators.
"My own feeling is that it will take more than a threat of decertification to get the Iranians back to the table," Lieberman told the Washington Examiner on the day of Trump's UN speech. "My guess is, we're going to have to actually decertify."
Such arguments offend and alarm Europeans, who resent what they say is America's disrespect for the financial sacrifices they made to make to bring the Iranians to the table. "I want to remind our American friends that when we started to impose sanctions on Iran, the U.S. didn't have any trade with Iran," Gérard Araud, France's ambassador to the U.S., said at the Atlantic Council panel. "The burden of the sanctions have been carried by the Europeans."
The United Kingdom's negligible economic ties with Iran did not corrupt their thinking about the deal, a top diplomat maintained. "I think there are probably houses in London that cost more than we sell to Iran," Ambassador Kim Darroch said dryly.
Germany's representative to the U.S. concurred, adding that the investment could pay dividends for Western security and its economies. "Of course, it's good business," Ambassador Peter Wittig said. "We want this Iran to gradually move to our values, to our worldview. Trade is an instrument and interaction with a society is an instrument and we think it's a good thing."
Since the lifting of the sanctions, European sources have provided most of the new Western investment in Iran, which has rich natural resources. Iranian exports to the European Union reportedly spiked by about 300 percent from 2015 to 2016. More recently, France's Total purchased a majority stake in a $4.8 billion energy deal with Iran.
Roskam opposes such deals. The Illinois Republican, who has called Western investors in Iran "accomplices" to regime-sponsored terrorism as part of a campaign to discourage American deals, abjures European optimism about inspiring reform in the country.
"What problems get better if you let people with a malevolent intent gain strength and gain influence?" he asked. "It doesn't make sense to enter into avoidance behavior on the hope that it is going to change behavior."
The North Korea question
Roskam and Cotton both pointed to North Korea's development of a nuclear weapon, despite an agreement that should have prevented it, as a cautionary tale. Wittig and other proponents of the agreement counter that breaking the Iran deal will send the wrong signal to North Korea just as the Trump administration is trying to use sanctions to bring that Pacific pariah to heel. "That would affect, I believe, our credibility in the West when we're not honoring an agreement that Iran has not violated," Wittig said.
There's a more ominous potential for the North Korean and the Iranian crises to intersect under the status quo, if critics of the deal are to be believed.
"We have evidence that Iran and North Korea have cooperated on nuclear and missile development programs," Lieberman said. "At the worst — this is what I don't have evidence for — Iran has effectively outsourced their weapons program to North Korea [for the duration of the deal]. And at any point they want, they can ... take a supreme leap forward."
Even if such an arrangement does not exist now, North Korea could eventually sell nuclear weapons to Iran. That's an "obvious economic deal," Sherman said in a September hearing.
Given such concerns, Cotton doesn't hesitate to level the mercantilist accusation that irritates Araud. "Our European allies would rather stick their heads in the sand and make billions of dollars selling equipment — much of it dual-use [civilian and military] — to Iran than deal with the manifest flaws of the JCPOA," he said.
Cotton is also dismissive of the Trump Cabinet's preference for certifying Iran's compliance, saying he has heard "no strong arguments" from them.
"In fact, what I hear is primarily irresponsible problem-ducking positions, like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand, pretending everything is OK because most of these provisions don't expire until 2025," he said. "So, secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, and presidents come and go on four- and eight-year cycles, or even less, but the Senate is forever. And I am taking the responsible long view that the Senate is supposed to take of our vital national security interests."
That's not fair to officials interested in certifying Iran's compliance, experts say. "This is the kind of situation where there is no good solution to it," one of the Middle East experts close to Trump's Cabinet said. "There's just more of what puts us at a better mitigation of risk for U.S. national security."
What should change
Iran hawks have zeroed in on three particular areas for improving the deal: Tightening restrictions on ballistic missile tests, which are arguably permitted under the deal even though the missiles can carry nuclear warheads; Give access to international monitors to military facilities that have housed components of the nuclear program; Extend the nuclear restrictions that are scheduled to expire in the current deal, in a nod to a compromise that Netanyahu proposed during the debate over the agreement.
"Each of these have been outlined by the various principals as things that have to be changed or the deal is simply unacceptable," a second Middle East expert close to the White House observed.
Araud acknowledged that Western powers should confront Iranian aggression, but he maintained that can happen without messing with the deal. "Nothing in the agreement is preventing us from facing the [other] challenges," he said.
American supporters of the deal, who share Europe's view of the pact and see the opposition of U.S. allies as a major hurdle to any policy change, believe that Cotton and his allies are arguing in bad faith. "This is one of those topics that very sadly has involved enormous intellectual dishonesty on the part of the critics," said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, another senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
And that skepticism applies regardless of party affiliation. Connolly acknowledged that there is "a clear and present danger" of collaboration between Iran and North Korea. But he stipulated a need to be "a little wary" of warnings from Sherman and others who voted against the deal. He suggested that Lieberman and Netanyahu misunderstand both the U.S. and Israel's national security interests and thus favor "a military strike" on Iran that would be counterproductive.
"He is connected at the hip with Bibi Netanyahu's thinking, which would lead you, frankly, to a [military] solution, which I don't believe would serve anyone's interest and would be the very kind of existential threat to Israel that allegedly Netanyahu and Lieberman want to avoid," Connolly told the Washington Examiner.
"They've actually never wanted this kind of agreement because they've actually wanted a military strike to take out Iran's nuclear capability and take the risk of the consequences," he said. "And the consequences would be disproportionately of course be borne by the U.S."
Connolly said he does not believe it will be possible to restart the talks, which were brought about the last time around by convincing Russia and China to implement extensive sanctions. "Those other parties will never consent to going back to the previous sanctions regime," Connolly said. "In fact, our allies won't do it. France won't do it."
Cotton maintains that Western allies will. But only if they believe the U.S. is willing to impose sanctions that would force European corporations to choose between working with "a terror-sponsoring country's economy that's approximately the size of the Maryland's economy" and the U.S.
"I think that's a pretty easy choice for foreign leaders," Cotton, a former management consultant at McKinsey & Company, said. "I know it's an easy choice for the shareholders, executives, board members, and general counsel of foreign corporations who, like, American corporations, tend to be quite risk-averse."
France's envoy struck a note of uncertainty, both about the Iranian and the Western response to a scenario in which Trump reimposed some or all of the waived sanctions.
"If Iran says, ‘I'm not going to implement the agreement anymore because the U.S. is not implementing its side of the agreement,' that will be the real $1 million question for all of us," Araud said. "We are strong allies of the U.S., but also we are committed to this agreement. We are convinced that the agreement is implemented right now. What will be our reaction? As you can guess, it will be decided at the highest level in our capitals on the basis of precise elements."
Some national security experts believe that Iran, despite receiving some financial benefits from the deal already, still has powerful economic reasons for sticking with the deal even if the U.S. demands they agree to additional restrictions.
Roskam said that it would be worth doing even if Iran decides to walk away. "At least there's clarity on our end about where the Iranians are going," he said.
Cotton thinks it won't come to that. He argues that if Iran walks away from the deal, Western economic sanctions could "probably run the clock on regime stability faster than they could" build a nuclear weapon.
There's always the option of "totally destroy[ing] Iran's nuclear infrastructure" if those assumptions prove incorrect. "Our military has a vast array of options and plans to conduct targeted strikes," Cotton said.