Prior to the vote to authorize war against Iraq in 2002, members of Congress who wanted George W. Bush to increase pressure on Iraq over allegations of a nonexistent WMD program were presented with a seemingly convincing third option. Rather than vote against authorizing Bush to go to war or explicitly backing his war push, they were told that voting for the authorization would give the White House the leverage to extract diplomatic concessions from Saddam Hussein. Yet there was no serious diplomatic plan, and Bush pocketed the war authorization to achieve his ultimate goal of regime change. In voting for a war authorization to buttress a nonexistent diplomatic path, many members of Congress were tricked into backing the war.
This is exactly what opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are trying to pull off by presenting a false “third option” for Trump apart from ripping up the deal or sustaining it. Ideological opponents of the JCPOA, such as Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), David Perdue (R-GA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz, are urging Trump to withhold certification that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and that U.S. compliance is in the national interest at the next 90-day congressional review in mid-October. After withholding certification, they argue that Trump could continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions in line with U.S. commitments under the deal.
Yet there is no plan for Trump to sustain the JCPOA by withholding certification. The end result – whether through congressional, executive or Iranian actions ― will almost certainly be the death of the deal. Whether he intends to or not, by withholding certification, Trump would be opening Pandora’s box on Iran’s nuclear program and risking war.
There are several reasons why the JCPOA opponents’ “third option” on Iran would be unsustainable. First, under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that mandates the 90-day review, the Republican-controlled Congress would then be permitted to pass legislation re-imposing sanctions waived under the accord under expedited procedure. When put in motion, it would be extremely difficult for JCPOA supporters to block the bill from passing. Given that not a single Republican in Congress voted to sustain the nuclear accord, and the vast majority of Senate Republicans signed a letter from Sen. Cotton to Iran’s supreme leader warning that the next president could undo any nuclear deal with the stroke of a pen, it is hard to see either Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan acting with restraint when given a chance to kill a deal that they vigorously opposed. The fact that they have a president seemingly on their side will only embolden them.
Even if Congressional re-imposition of sanctions falters, there is another reason withholding certification is likely to kill the deal. By withholding certification, Trump would have to either allege that Iran is in noncompliance or indicate that continuing sanctions relief in line with U.S. commitments is no longer in the national interest. Such a position would create tremendous pressure on Trump and his administration to make good on their words and kill the JCPOA.
Would Trump, seemingly driven by little other than pride and his determination to unravel his predecessor’s accomplishments, withstand the pressure from Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo and other ideological opponents of the JCPOA in the administration? Would Trump ignore John Bolton and other “experts” who make the case for killing the deal he hates on “Fox and Friends” and other cable news programs? After making the case that the deal is not working, there is little reason to expect Trump to ignore those who have the president’s ear and are seeking a full termination of the JCPOA.
Furthermore, one cannot discount the possibility of Iran undertaking aggressive steps that tempt Trump to be the one to rip up the deal. Thus far, despite the U.S. arguably taking steps that violate the JCPOA, including Trump discouraging G-20 leaders from doing business with Iran, Iran has kept its powder dry, likely in anticipation of a more severe future crisis. If the agreement is put on its death bed by Trump withholding certification – a step that would severely undercut foreign businesses interested in permissible business under the JCPOA – this restraint would likely end. Iran could take its complaints through the JCPOA Joint Commission in an effort to break the other parties of the agreement away from the U.S. or escalate via its military and proxies in ways that raise the pressure on Trump to be the one who kills the accord.
After the JCPOA is killed, Iran would be free to ramp up its nuclear activities, the U.S. would be isolated and without leverage, and Trump and his hawkish advisors would soon be faced with another pivotal decision: allow Iran to advance toward the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons or undertake costly military action in the hopes of delaying but not ultimately preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent.
To avoid such a disaster, Trump could simply move to certify Iran’s compliance and that sustaining the deal is in the U.S. interest in mid-October. But if Trump falls for the false option of withholding certification in the hopes of pressuring Iran, he will be courting the same disasters as if he ripped up the accord himself.