President Trump is expected this week to refuse to recertify that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, a milestone diplomatic agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Trump seems poised to take that action despite the reality that Iran is not violating the terms of the deal. In fact, his key national security cabinet officers have publicly said that Iran is meeting its commitments. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with monitoring and verifying the deal, has issued eight reports over the past two years echoing these conclusions.
Instead, the president seems prepared to argue that the deal is no longer in the United States’ vital national security interest because of Iran’s other activities in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism, its meddling in Syria and Yemen, and its threats to Israel’s security.
The Trump administration is right that Iranian behavior destabilizes the region, but wrong when it says that such behavior contradicts the “spirit” of the agreement and that he is therefore justified in refusing to certify Iran’s compliance. In fact, Iran’s troubling foreign policy is precisely why the deal was necessary in the first place: An Iran armed with a nuclear weapon would be far more threatening to regional and global security.
But rather than take responsibility for deciding the future of the agreement, the president wants to pass the buck. The White House has signaled that after his certification decision, Mr. Trump will urge the Republican-controlled Congress not to reimpose sanctions on Iran that would scuttle the deal. Instead, he hopes Congress will pass new legislation to address concerns that were never part of the nuclear agreement’s original mandate. If Congress complies, such unilateral action to change a multilateral agreement will effectively kill it.
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The president’s unwillingness to accept the truth about the Iran deal — that it is working to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that it is clearly in America’s national security interest — will have far-reaching consequences.
For one, this decision will breach the trust of America’s partners and isolate our country. The deal was agreed to by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — along with Germany and the European Union. It was then ratified unanimously by the full Security Council. All of these parties, except the United States, want to keep the accord in place.
If President Trump undermines the nuclear deal, the repercussions for American foreign policy will be disastrous: It will drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, weakening the critical trans-Atlantic relationship and increasing the influence of Iran, Russia and China. And when the president travels to China next month seeking support to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, he will find the Chinese less willing partners. Washington’s credibility will be damaged for the next time we want countries to agree to something, such as condemning Iran’s malicious behavior in the Middle East or tightening the screws on North Korea. Indeed, we are likely to lose any possibility of dialogue with North Korea because Pyongyang will assume the United States will not honor its commitments, even on multilateral agreements. Unpredictability — a favorite self-justification for the president’s erratic actions — has its place as a negotiating tactic, but when it comes to war and peace, reliability and credibility matter most.
Whether the Trump administration’s decertification unravels the deal quickly or slowly, unjustified unilateral American action will give the Iranians the moral high ground, allowing them to rightly say that it was the United States, not them, who killed the deal. At the same time, if Iran stays in the agreement with the other countries who are party to it, the United States will lose any standing to bring concerns to the Joint Commission, the forum the agreement set up to oversee progress; any evidence we might offer about suspect Iranian military sites will be viewed with suspicion.
If Congress reimposes sanctions, Iran will withdraw from the accord, restart its nuclear program, kick out the inspectors from the I.A.E.A. and refuse to discuss the Americans missing in Iran or held in Iranian prisons. The United States, and the world, would lose our eyes and ears on the ground in Iran — the inspectors. This information vacuum could, in short order, lead us to consider military action to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, perhaps leading to a wider war in the Middle East. Given the escalatory cycle we are in with North Korea, as well as Pyongyang’s and the president’s rhetoric, America will be faced with two countries whose nuclear ambitions threaten our security.
It is hard to see how any of these consequences improve the United States’ national security. Although Mr. Trump ostensibly won’t ask Congress to reimpose sanctions now, the track record for Congress doing what the president wants is dismal. Even if Congress doesn’t move quickly to reimpose sanctions, Iran and our allies in this agreement know that a congressional election is looming, and a tough stance against Tehran could make for appealing campaign ads. The president and the Republican-controlled Congress are not only playing with fire. They are lighting it themselves.
A conflagration need not occur. The president and Congress can work with partners around the world, using a wealth of tools, to thwart Iran’s malign actions in the Middle East while keeping the nuclear deal in place to accomplish its objective: stopping Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Given that our national security leaders all know and speak the truth about Iran’s compliance with the deal, we can only hope they and Congress prevent the president from abandoning it and disastrously undermining our national security.