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Trump Expected to Decertify Iran Deal, but Complications Loom

Trump is expected to announce his latest decision on this topic later this week, and it is still not certain what course of action he will take. He has previously stated that Iran would likely be found non-compliant this time around, but he also said as recently as last week that he would not reveal his decision ahead of time, even though he claims to have already made it. This claim was contradicted, however, by an unnamed White House official who spoke to the Financial Times.

The official said that as of Monday the president had not yet made an absolute decision and also that despite previous promises about tearing up or renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he may now be looking for ways to “fix” the deal without ending it. The White House has already arguably set the stage for such a course of action, with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley emphasizing that even if Trump decertifies Iranian compliance before Sunday it would not necessarily mean an American exit from the seven-party accord.

In fact, the Financial Times article notes that even Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, arguably the strongest voice of congressional opposition to the nuclear deal, is not pushing for the immediate re-imposition of economic sanctions after the potential decertification. Instead, Cotton has put forward a plan that would take advantage of the 60-day period during which Congress can vote on such a measure, so that the White House could build consensus among American allies regarding the need for stronger action on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other behaviors.

Reference to these other behaviors is apparently important for the president as well, seeing as he is expected to release the results of a comprehensive review of Iran policy around the same time that he announces his decision on the nuclear accord. The Financial Times suggests that Trump may be working to minimize the political embarrassment that would come of once again backpedaling on his promise to undermine the JCPOA, and one way of doing this could be to refocus foreign policy on issues of Iranian behavior that fall outside the explicit scope of the nuclear deal.

Virtually from the beginning of his presidency, and especially in the run-up to the latest deadline, Trump has been emphasizing Tehran’s alleged non-compliance with the “spirit” of the agreement. This has certainly been intended to reference ballistic missile tests that flout a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Iran to avoid work on weapons capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It may also refer to such things as Iranian threats against US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, as well as arrests of Western nationals and other activities that show an aversion to cooperation or de-escalation with traditional Western adversaries.

On Monday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran release a report on Iranian activity subsequent to the nuclear negotiations which focused on issues such as ballistic missile tests and support of terrorism in the broader Middle East. The report endorsed the argument that these activities constitute violations of the spirit of the JCPOA, and it added that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had explicitly escalated some such activities in order to compensate for the appearance of compromise with the United States and the European Union.

But despite the continued Iranian antagonism toward the Western world in general, the EU and its member states continue to defend the deal, including JCPOA signatories Germany and France, along with the United Kingdom. And this is to say nothing of Russia and China, both of which are also signatories and permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as increasingly close allies of the Islamic Republic. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have repeatedly reaffirmed their support of Iran’s position in recent weeks, and Agence-France Presse quoted a spokesperson for Putin as saying on Monday that Moscow was trying to anticipate the “negative consequences” of Trump’s potential decertification.

Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with enforcing the JCPOA and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, has repeatedly stated that Iran has remained in compliance with its strict obligations under the deal. According to France 24, the agency’s Director General Yukiya Amano reiterated this claim again on Monday. It is worth noting, however, that this came only about two weeks after Amano spoke out about the JCPOA’s lack of verification methods of Section T, which identifies across-the-board restrictions on Iranian activities that could lead to the development of a nuclear weapon.

Section T had previously been highlighted by another report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and statements like Amano’s have been cited to suggest that international attitudes toward Tehran and the nuclear deal may be shifting in a way that lends credence to Trump’s concerns. This may in turn point to the possible efficacy of Cotton’s plan to build international consensus in the weeks after decertification.

For the time being, however, the strong international support for the agreement is presumably a leading reason why even Cotton will not advocate for immediate re-imposition of sanctions. As such, it is also a reason why Trump’s actions this week cannot be definitively predicted. The uncertainty is amplified by certain domestic considerations, including the dispute between the president and Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Reuters described this situation in a report on Monday.

Although a leading Republican and a longstanding critic of the nuclear agreement, Corker has also been critical of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy since announcing he would not seek reelection to his Senate seat. Lack of backing from Corker, a major player on Iran policy, would further tighten the president’s already narrow margin of support in a Senate that is comprised of 53 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

Although Democrats have been overwhelmingly supportive of the JCPOA since its implementation, Congress as a whole is prone to fairly hardline views on the Islamic Republic as a whole. With this in mind, a shift toward issues of Iran policy other than the nuclear deal may allow the president to win much broader support, especially if the White House can effectively highlight instances of ongoing and even worsening malign behavior by the Iranian regime.

This may be a fairly simple task in light of the rhetorical responses given to the US and its allies by various Iranian officials in the wake of new enforcement measures or even hints of the same. For instance, the Associated Press reported on Monday that General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said that the United States should move its regional military bases beyond the supposed range of Iranian missiles if it has any intention of imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

In the wake of his administration’s comprehensive review of Iran policy, Trump may designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization – a move for which he ordered a State Department review within the first month of his presidency. Jafari said that such a move would “eliminate any chance for engagement forever,” but the IRGC has already reportedly been a leading opponent of all forms of engagement, including the nuclear deal.

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