US Action on Iran Nuclear Deal Is Uncertain, but Consensus Is Growing in Other Areas

In announcing decertification, the president urged Congress and America’s European partners to work together on improving the deal that he has described as “one of the worst and most one-sided agreements” the US has entered into. Trump’s predecessor and leading architect of the JCPOA, Barack Obama, had defended the agreement near the end of his presidency by highlighting, for instance, so-called “snap-back” provisions that would make it easy to re-impose suspended sanctions if this was deemed necessary. A highly skeptical Congress included the every-90-day certification requirement in INARA as part of an effort to make such re-imposition even easier.

It is arguably surprising, therefore, that the Republican-dominated Congress did not move to actually pursue measures to that effect. But any unilateral moves by the US to re-impose sanctions would be strongly opposed by the other parties to the agreement at this stage, and ABC News reported on Thursday that White House officials had insisted they never really expected Congress to act against the JCPOA. Trump’s own decertification announcement was also not a direct blow against the nuclear deal, which remains in effect. The president declined to order the US out of agreement, opting instead to send the matter to Congress, apparently in hopes of working on a legislative solution.

The same officials told ABC that this type of solution is still being mutually pursued by the White House and Congress, with the intention of addressing much maligned weaknesses in the JCPOA, including the absence of provisions relating to Iranian ballistic missile activities and the presence of sunset clauses that could allow Iran to return to full-scale nuclear enrichment starting 10 years after the deal went into effect.

The US now has approximately another month to work on these intended solutions. With the Congressional deadline having lapsed, the matter returns to the executive branch, where Trump will be required to make a decision by January 13 regarding whether to continue waiving the sanctions named in the JCPOA. Although he has repeatedly asserted his authority to unilaterally cancel American participation in the deal if a legislative solution is not agreed upon, Voice of America News pointed out on Thursday that congressional lawmakers are skeptical about whether Trump will follow through on this threat.

It’s not clear whether it will make a difference to the US’s European partners whether Trump personally cancels the agreement or oversees the passage of legislation that he deems to fill in the perceived gaps in it. ABC notes that those partners generally agree that separate measures which attempt to cancel the sunset provisions or otherwise change the practical outcomes of the JCPOA would constitute material breaches of it. If so, the difference between the two prospective outcomes may be little more than a question of whether the provisions are officially broken first by the US or by Iran.

As an alternative, Democrats have recommended maintaining the status quo on the Iran nuclear deal while simultaneously pursuing a more assertive set of policies on other issues of Iranian behavior, including the ballistic missile tests that Trump has insisted upon linking to the JCPOA. Those provocative missile launches were prominent among the justifications that the Trump White House gave for decertifying the agreement on the basis of Iranian violations of the “spirit” of the deal. The preamble of the JCPOA predicts that its implementation will contribute to peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region, and many critics of the Islamic Republic conclude that its behavior contravenes this promise.

In the wake Congress’ de facto acceptance of the status quo, it is not immediately clear whether the Trump administration will be willing to embrace a policy that decouples ballistic missiles and other issues from the future of the JCPOA. But it does appear to be the case that the administration has been working to shift international attention toward those other issues. On one hand, this could be aimed at encouraging separate legislative action and international agreements on those issues. But on the other hand, it could be intended to raise the profile of Iranian misbehavior in an attempt to convince the international community that a stronger alternative to the JCPOA is needed.

Whatever the case may be, the lapse in the deadline for nuclear sanctions was almost immediately followed by the White House’s announcement that it would be presenting information related to Iranian missiles on Thursday. CNN provided details of this announcement, specifying that the presentation at the Defense Intelligence Agency would be focused upon ongoing efforts to encourage international recognition of the Iranian role in providing weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In early November, a missile was fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabian territory, where it was shot down over King Khaled International Airport. It was the farthest-reaching strike attempt by the Houthi to date, and many observers concluded that such an expansion in the rebels’ missile range would not have been possible without the assistance of their allies in Iran. The Iranians deny directly backing the Houthi, but several weapons shipments have been intercepted en route between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia and the US were quick to identify the relevant missile as being of Iranian origin. European Union and United Nations officials, meanwhile, acknowledged some signs of Iranian manufacture but stopped short of declaring the matter concluded. With Thursday’s presentation, the Trump administration hopes to provide proof to those who remain skeptical.

If that effort is successful, it is possible that it may engender more international support for the role being played by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Yemeni conflict, where they are reportedly focused on pushing back against the ongoing expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region. Although much of the international community has been critical of the humanitarian impact of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, the Arab coalition is fighting support of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, as led by President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi.

Until recently, the Houthi were allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but Saleh turned away from the alliance early this month, leading to his assassination at the hands of the Houthi. The Washington Examiner looked at this and other recent developments in the conflict on Tuesday and concluded that Iran is losing its hold on Yemen, as well as losing ground to regional rivals more generally.

The article also happened to point out that Iran is facing more international pressure, particularly from JCPOA signatories France and Germany, over its ballistic missile program. This is perhaps indicative of the early success of the Trump administration’s efforts to bring greater international focus to bear on such issues. The Washington Examiner piece concludes by urging “the U.S., Europe, and the Arab World to increase the price of Iran’s bellicosity,” initially by “liberating Yemen from Iran’s influence.”

The announcement of Thursday’s Defense Intelligence presentation suggests that the White House is striving to do just that, and is seeking foreign partners in that endeavor. But recent history indicates that the administration is also hoping to find international support for a much broader project that includes revision of the JCPOA. And while foreign interest may be relatively easy to find for the first of these initiatives, the nuclear agreement apparently presents a much more difficult set of political obstacles.