Before Iran Policy Announcement, Trump Faced Pressure on Nuclear Deal but Support for Broader Assertiveness

US President Donald Trump is expected to announce on Friday not only whether he plans to recertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal but also the details of his overall policy toward the Islamic Republic going forward. That policy has been under review roughly since the previous occasion on which the president was required by US legislation to certify the national security importance of sanctions relief under the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Although the broader policy position could have transformative effect, the world’s attention remains primarily focused on the JCPOA certification, which Trump is expected to withhold despite having begrudgingly provided it in April and then again in July. The president is scheduled to speak on this and the surrounding issues at 12:45, Washington time.

Among the media outlets to analyze the situation in the day ahead of that deadline was the BBC, which reports that some of Trump’s own top advisors continue to support the deal. It is these figures who supposedly prevailed upon the president to convince him to certify it on the previous occasions, citing such complications as the potential damage to America’s relationship with its European allies.

Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, along with the European Union in general, are all party to the JCPOA, and all continue to vigorously support it. Al Jazeera reported on Thursday that UK Prime Minister Theresa May had issued a statement declaring that she “reaffirmed the UK's strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners, saying it was vitally important for regional security.”

Those partners including French President Emmanuel Macron, who said that withdrawal from the JCPOA would be a “grave error.” However, some figures’ support of the agreement have arguably softened in recent weeks, as suggested for instance by Macron’s acknowledgment last month that the deal was “not enough” in light of Iran’s regional behavior. This behavior is ostensibly an issue apart from the JCPOA, but Trump has declined to separate them, citing Iranian ballistic missile tests and other provocative activities as violations of the “spirit” of the deal.

Opponents of the nuclear agreement have cited its preamble to support this position, noting that it affirms that the signatories anticipate that its implementation will contribute positively to the security of the region. This language is reflected in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the congressional legislation that imposes the requirement for the president to certify Iran’s compliance and the broader national security implications of sanctions relief.

The non-separation of the nuclear issue from broader issues of Iran policy was presumably a major factor in opposition to the deal, especially among congressional Republicans, during its negotiation. However, Reuters reports that with the deal now in effect, some of those same opponents are now at odds with Trump on the topic of its potential dissolution. In fact, the report begins with the claim that the staunch former opponents of the JCPOA may now become its unlikely saviors.

The president could order the immediate reimplementation of nuclear-related sanctions upon decertifying the deal, but it is not generally expected that he will do this. An alternative is that Trump could declare Iran to be non-compliant but take no further action, leaving the US as a signatory to the deal pending a congressional vote within 60 days on the prospect of ending sanctions relief.

Any congressional measure to unilaterally re-implement sanctions would apparently face serious challenges in light of declared opposition to the president’s position by some leading Republicans. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said for instance, “As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must enforce the hell out of it.” And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has even gone so far as to suggest changing the legislation that he helped to author, in order to eliminate the every-90-day certification requirement and effectively take the issue of the nuclear deal’s survival further out of Trump’s hands.

Even Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, widely regarded as the most hardline voice on Iran policy, has recommended that Congress take advantage of the full 60 days before voting on sanctions renewal, during which time the White House would be able to lobby its European allies for a broader consensus on the future of Western policy toward Iran.

That project may already be underway, especially in view of the efforts by such figures as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to use international communications in order to set the stage for Trump’s potential decertification. Bloomberg reported on Thursday that Tillerson had spent part of that day informing European counterparts of the president’s decision. Despite scheduling the relevant announcement for Friday afternoon, Trump began suggesting weeks earlier that he had already come to a decision. And even before that, he had already told the media that he expected Iran to be found non-compliant this time around.

This has given European leaders time to plan their response should Trump decertify. But the Bloomberg report concludes that most of these plans involve the maintenance of the status quo, at least until such time as Congress votes upon sanctions. With this in mind, various European diplomats were reportedly already lobbying Congress over the future of the deal on Thursday.

Opinions vary regarding the impact on Europe in the event that Congress does go ahead with the re-implementation of sanctions. Some European officials have insisted that there are legal provisions for their governments to mitigate the effects of US sanctions that are directed against other foreign entities. But Bloomberg notes that other such officials are anxiously awaiting clarification regarding the implications of those sanctions for Europe-based businesses. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera states that it would be quite difficult for such businesses to continue doing business with Iran and yet avoid far-reaching consequences if sanctions reemerge.

If, however, European entities are both able and willing to continue their dealings with the Islamic Republic in the wake of American decertification of and even withdrawal from the JCPOA, then Trump’s moves against the deal may have little effect. This was the focus of a report by the Huffington Post, which pointed out that European business with Iran has grown steadily while American business has actually contracted compared to the period immediately following the deal’s conclusion. The report goes on to say that this greatly diminishes the amount of economic leverage that the US is able to exert unilaterally, thereby making global consensus all the more crucial to the plans by Trump and Congress to take a harder line on Iran.

Despite the disagreements between the White House and the legislature regarding the nuclear deal itself, there is apparently much less disagreement on the non-nuclear issues that Trump will address on Friday. The same Reuters report that highlighted support for JCPOA enforcement among the deal’s former opponents also pointed out that those opponents would like to take advantage of other means for clamping down on Iran while focusing on a broader strategy.

Trump may unveil just such a strategy on Friday. As Al Jazeera points out, while Trump used Wednesday to reiterate his claim that the JCPOA is the “worst deal” the US has been a party to, he has also “ramped up criticism” of the Islamic Republic as a whole in the days leading up to his policy announcement.

Purveyors of similar criticism may even support decertification of Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal specifically because it sends an assertive message, even if it does not lead to the end of that deal. On Thursday, Voice of America News quoted Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute as saying that the Iranians are concerned about the prospect of decertification because “It calls them out for their behavior. It punishes them for their behavior.”

Perhaps as an expression of that concern, hardline figures in the Iranian regime have responded to the current situation with bombastic threats. But the VOA News report indicates that various American intelligence and military figures expect that Iran will not directly act upon those threats and that even if it does, it would not be departing very much from its normal belligerence.
But according to The Guardian, the most serious Iranian threats come not in response to the potential decertification of nuclear compliance, but instead in response to another prospective measure that Trump may take on Friday: the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

The Guardian explains that such designation would be unprecedented insofar as the IRGC is a military organization recognized by its country’s constitution. But the same report points to how this measure could also begin to confront Iran’s malign activities. It quotes a founding member of the IRGC who is now an exiled dissident as saying that the organization has become “a monster” as a result of unmitigated growth, making it a major driving force behind Iran’s hardline policies both at home and abroad.

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