Yes, Donald Trump has the power to withdraw from what he’s slammed as the “worst deal ever,” amid key deadlines beginning on Friday for his White House to reimpose sanctions against Iran.
But no, the U.S. president probably won’t go through with it.
So say defence and Middle East policy analysts, who foresee Trump stopping short of scuppering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite his loathing for what’s more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Time runs out on Friday for Trump to decide whether to extend relief on energy and financial sanctions that would effectively end the accord. While he’s expected to refuse to certify that the deal is in the best interests of U.S. national security — a measure that’s required every 90 days — the expert consensus is he will continue to allow key sanctions to be lifted.
Which would mean the 2015 nuclear agreement lives on, whether the president likes it or not.
Proponents of the landmark accord with the U.S. and five other world powers argue that it puts a temporary freeze on Iran’s nuclear program.
Trump has routinely ripped it as one-sided “catastrophe” that fails to curb the progress of Iran’s ballistic missile development or support for terrorist-classified groups.
Either way, this is the deal the president now feels pressured to abide by, with his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster advising him to stick with it, despite Trump’s campaign promises to revoke it.
The agreement isn’t perfect. It has an expiration date in 2025 and has allowed Iran to have missile technology. But while it may not have frozen Iran’s nuclear activities, “it did keep it in a box for a decade or so, and nobody can deny that’s not a bad thing,” says Harry Kazianis, an Asia scholar and director of defence studies at the conservative Center for the National Interest in Washington.
‘Trump is in a bind’
“Trump is in a bind. The bottom line is, he’s stuck with this deal.”
In a way, Kazianis said, the president’s likely decision not to abandon the agreement as he promised could be a blessing, given the U.S. foreign-policy challenges already underway with Russia regarding to election meddling and influence, and China regarding trade and North Korea.
“We’re going to stay in the deal, but he’s not going to be happy about it,” Kazianis said.
Since coming into office, Trump has twice certified the agreement within the required 90-day period, before announcing in October for the first time that he would no longer certify Iran’s compliance. That set off a foreign-policy crisis, punting it to Congress to decide whether to waive or reinstate sanctions that severed Iran’s central bank from the global financial system.
‘For all the talk, the reality is that [Iran] has remained technically within compliance with the JCPOA, and it’s very clear that President Trump doesn’t like that.’
— Gary Sick, Columbia University
Had a deeply divided Congress decided not to carry on with lifting the sanctions, the deal would have collapsed.
That was three months ago. Now, facing another deadline, Trump is expected to repeat this decertification action, once again imperilling the agreement by placing the burden on Congress to save it.
“Basically, nothing has changed,” said Gary Sick, a Middle East policy expert with Columbia University.
“For all the talk, the reality is that [Iran] has remained technically within compliance with the JCPOA, and it’s very clear that President Trump doesn’t like that, but he has thus far not been willing to take action.”
Decertification, meaning the U.S. no longer believes Iran is complying with the deal’s terms, is not the same thing as the U.S. ending the JCPOA, and the other partner countries could still honour it. More than anything, Sick views decertification as a bit of political gamesmanship.
“My guess is most of President Trump’s followers and supporters believe we are no longer in the agreement” due to the decertification action. “From the political point of view, maybe that’s all he really needs.”
The signatories can expect further rounds of deadlines every few months, involving White House decertification and Congress waiving sanctions — what Sick refers to as a “charade” of pseudo-crises.
As Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary of defence in the George H.W. Bush administration, notes, Trump has the technical authority to withdraw from the deal if he wants to, owing to the fact the JCPOA was never ratified as a treaty.
“Revoking the deal is within the president’s power. Obviously he can do that, and he’s said so many times it may be the worst deal possible — and he’s right.”
What’s stopping him is politics, Babbin said. Trump’s advisers don’t want him to cancel the deal, and the European co-signatories have been lobbying him hard to endorse it while critics warn it could undermine U.S. international credibility on deal-making.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has called on the U.S. to devise an alternative solution for curbing Iran’s nuclear progress. So far, Johnson, said there is no better option.
But Trump “is not locked into the deal,” Babbin said. “He just perceives that he is.”
Babbin expects “some pretence” of further sanctions. He would most like to see the old sanctions reimposed, rather than a repeat of the decertification process that turns it over to Congress for a final say.
“Because we know what Congress is going to do — nada.”
Richard Nephew, a former U.S. State Department nuclear negotiator, cautions an unpredictable Trump could still make it a “coin flip” decision on whether he’ll pull out.
Trump is essentially trapped in this deal, Nephew said in an email, until he can answer a fundamental question: “How is he going to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program remains in check without the JCPOA?”
“I think that’s the reason why it has been hard to walk away from it, though he dearly would like to.”
Even so, the administration is keeping up the tough talk.
“I am expecting new sanctions on Iran,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced Thursday.
Threatening as it sounds, Nephew described those plans as more likely to be “side” sanctions targeting individuals and businesses.
In the meantime, a violent crackdown on anti-regime protestors in Iran in recent weeks has put the nuclear discussions into sharper relief. Demonstrators fed up with economic malaise had hoped the promise of the nuclear deal would benefit them.
In a statement, Democratic Sen Dianne Feinstein said backing off from the nuclear deal now would undermine those Iranian protesters, reasoning that lifting sanctions “helped expose their government’s corruption and mismanagement of its economy.”
“Reimposing them now,” she added, “would be turning our back on the Iranian people.”