Under the terms of congressional acceptance of that agreement, the president is required to certify every 90 days that the continued suspension of economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program are both justified and in the national security interest of the United States. Trump was apparently compelled by his national security team to sign off on that certification when he faced the first two deadlines as president. But he refused to follow the same advice in October, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency continued to report that Iran was living up to its essential obligations under the JCPOA.
Trump stopped short of declaring a US withdrawal from the deal, however, and instead punted the issue to Congress, initiating a 60-day review period during which American lawmakers could decide whether to re-impose sanctions. At the end of that period, Congress had taken no action and the established protocol for American participation in the JCPOA continued unaltered. It has now been nearly 90 days since Trump’s October 13 decertification, and he is scheduled to report on Iranian compliance and American national security issues once again on Friday.
The administration’s decision on this point will be immediately followed by deadlines for the reauthorization of JCPOA-related sanctions waivers, starting on Friday and continuing through Wednesday. The president is required to take action on these waivers as well as on the JCPOA itself. As CNBC put it in a report earlier in the week, this presents Trump with multiple opportunities to scrap the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, the report concluded that the JCPOA would probably survive those trials, even though its long-term prospects remain uncertain.
One thing that may influence Trump’s decision-making on both compliance certification and sanctions waivers is a meeting that took place last week between representatives of the White House and the Senate to discuss the JCPOA and broader US strategies toward the Islamic Republic. The meeting followed up on Trump’s warning that he would use presidential authority to cancel or undermine the deal if American lawmakers and their European partners did not take measures to strengthen its provisions and its enforcement.
The US cannot unilaterally alter the JCPOA, which was negotiated among Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and Germany. But Congress can change the standards for ongoing American implementation, and last week’s meeting focused on a bill that might codify the US government’s rejection of controversial elements of the deal, like the sunset provisions that allow restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program to be lifted after approximately 15 years.
The prospective bill might also eliminate the every-90-day certification requirement, according to Reuters. This would presumably save President Trump from continuing to either defy his own views of the JCPOA or court international condemnation by decertifying it, only to take little or no further action against it.
However, CNBC reports that there has been little progress on this bill since it was first outlined in October, around the time of Trump’s decertification announcement. The resulting absence of desired modifications to the deal may prove to be frustrating to the White House. But at the same time, the lack of progress prevents Trump from having a serious alternative to the existing agreement which he can present to European partners.
As the BBC reported on Thursday, those reporters reiterated their support for the JCPOA just ahead of Trump’s latest decisions on it. Specifically, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the UK weighed in on the deal after a meeting in Brussels with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted that the JCPOA has been successful in preventing Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, but he also challenged the Trump administration to come up with a better alternative.
The BBC also quoted Mogherini as saying the agreement has been “delivering on its main goal.” No doubt this view is reinforced by the IAEA’s determinations that Iran has been maintaining the agreed-upon restrictions, although many critics of the deal have responded to such claims by highlighting nuclear inspectors’ lack of access to Iranian military sites. In any event, Trump’s decertification announcement in October focused not on the “main goal” of forestalling Iranian nuclear activities but on broader goal that was reiterated by Mogherini on Thursday when she said the deal was “making the world safer.”
The Trump administration explained that the Iranians were violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA through such activities as their test-firing of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and their continued intervention into regional conflicts, often with a specific eye toward undermining Western interests.
The preamble of the JCPOA announces that its signatories expect it to contribute to global peace and security, but the ongoing implementation of the agreement has been taking place against the backdrop of an escalating war of words, particularly between Tehran and the White House. This conflict has been given new focus by the anticipation of Trump’s latest decisions, to which the Iranians responded with preemptive threats.
Agence France Presse reported on Monday that Iranian officials had warned the international community to be prepared for American withdrawal, adding that the Islamic Republic was already prepared for “any scenario.” The report added that Bahram Qasemi, the spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said that Tehran had already planned a “heavy response” for any action the US takes against the continued implementation of the JCPOA. Xinhua News Agency added that Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, had warned of a response that would be “rapid” and a “surprise” to the United States.
Also on Monday, Reuters noted that Iranian authorities had declared they would reconsider their cooperation with the IAEA even if the US acted in a purely unilateral fashion to undermine the deal. And according to CNBC, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran specifically warned that it could increase uranium enrichment in response to a negative decision by the Trump administration. In previous comments, the AEOI and other Iranian authorities have insisted that they are in a position to not only resume full-scale enrichment but also to do so at a level far above what they had achieved by the time the JCPOA went into effect.
But it is not clear that comments from the likes of Qasemi and Ravanchi refer only to the resumption of voluntarily suspended nuclear activities, especially given that they are directed more specifically at the US. Indeed, these comments immediately preceded similarly vague threats from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, unrelated to the nuclear deal. Elaborating upon his claim that recent nationwide protests in the Islamic Republic had been orchestrated by foreign infiltrators, Khamenei accused the US of doing harm to the Iranian nation and warned that American interests will “have an answer.”