The cover of this week's New Yorker. Illustration by Tom Bachtell.
On Friday, President Trump announced he will not certify Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal signed by his predecessor. I'm sure most of us spent the weekend inundated with thought pieces declaring this a major misstep or some kind of politically motivated gambit that plays fast and loose with global security. But they're all wrong. With this bold action, we're finally on the path toward a safer Middle East.
Iran remains an immense threat to the United States and our allies, and decertification is a serious first step towards mitigating the harm Tehran is causing around the globe. Today's less covered announcement by the Treasury Department that it would apply further sanctions to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an important second step.
Both of these actions must be viewed through a lens that's wider than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action itself. They're not about the Iran deal, they're about U.S. policy toward Iran. Viewing the JCPOA as an island unto itself was one of President Obama's key mistakes. Fixing that mistake will make us all safer.
First, it's important to understand exactly what President Trump announced. When President Obama entered into the agreement, he didn't seek approval from the Senate, which has the constitutional obligation to ratify all international treaties, because the deal was extremely unpopular. Instead, Congress reached a compromise and passed a bill called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, requiring the administration to certify every 90 days that the JCPOA is advancing our national security interests.
Iran remains an immense threat to the United States and its allies.
Decertifying the JCPOA doesn't end it. It doesn't mean that the United States is pulling out of the agreement either. But it does provide an opportunity for Congress to reevaluate whether the deal is advancing our national security interests.
The answer to that question is easy to determine. We know for a fact that Iran is preventing international inspectors from doing their jobs at military sites. We know for a fact that Tehran's work on ballistic missiles continues unabated. We know that the deal's sunset clauses will allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon with international support if they just wait a few more years, too.
Given these problems, it's actually difficult to argue with a straight face that the deal improves our national security. That's before we even contemplate Iran's ongoing harassment of our military personnel or their support for international instability in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, let alone Tehran's longstanding and expanding patronage of terrorism and violent extremism.
After the deal is decertified, Congress and the Trump administration can bring Iran back to the negotiating table to regain some of the leverage President Obama carelessly flushed away. Without leaving the deal, we can seek concessions from Iran that should have been in there from the start. We can establish some red lines on Iran's behavior, and put in place plans to actually enforce them. The Revolutionary Guard Corps sanctions are a great first step.
At best, the JCPOA pauses Iran's development of nuclear weapons temporarily.
Next, we'll have to deal with support for Hezbollah, Iran's most violent and powerful proxy. Beyond that, the United States must work with our allies to contain Iran's regional influence, sharing intelligence, enhancing cooperation and even arming nations, such as our Sunni Arab allies, that share our interest in keeping Tehran in check.
President Trump's critics, including those who shamelessly lied to the American public to sell this deal, will cry foul. Just like they did when ramming this bad agreement down our throats, they'll say that decertification leads to war. It's powerful rhetoric, but fortunately it's not much more than that.
Iran received the bulk of the sanctions relief at the outset of the deal, another key weakness, but Tehran still needs the economic benefits the deal provides, and they especially need the certainty and stability that would come with a stronger agreement, as many international businesses have remained reluctant to do business in Iran. So, despite the rhetoric, Tehran has too much to lose to seriously consider backing out of the agreement.
Money flowing into Iran must be contingent upon improvements in its behavior.
Yes, nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive capability and we must keep them out of Iran's hands. But dealing with the threat Iran poses has always required more than just delaying its nuclear weapons programs. It's a heavy lift, but securing a safer future for America and the entire Middle East is always a difficult task.
If Congress and the Trump administration can work together to ensure that the money flowing into Iran is contingent upon improvements in its behavior, with respect to the nuclear program and other fronts, we'll all be better off.
Gregg Roman is director of the Middle East Forum.