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October 15, 2017 10:18 am

After Iran Announcement, Trump Punts to Congress

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US President Donald Trump delivering his first address before the UN General Assembly. Photo: UN.

JNS.org –  President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he will decertify the Iranian nuclear deal as part of a new and tougher approach towards the Islamic Republic. The move brings a new level of challenges and uncertainty in handling one of the most complex international agreements in recent years.

Proponents of the deal fear that dismantling it could lead Iran to restarting its nuclear weapons program, while also undermining US leadership and credibility. Opponents, including Trump, believe that the deal doesn’t go far enough in addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior.

“President Trump’s Iran speech set the US on the right path to fix a nuclear accord that members of his administration have rightly called ‘fatally flawed,’” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org.

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“The President’s framing of decertification matters just as much as the decision itself,” he said. “By placing Iran’s problematic behavior under the accord in the broader context of the non-nuclear threats [that] the Islamic Republic poses … Trump reminded audiences why the Islamic Republic remains a rogue regime.”

According to Trump, the new strategy to deal with Iran will include working with allies to counter Tehran’s “destabilizing activities and support for terrorist proxies in the region,” as well as addressing the “regime’s proliferation of [ballistic] missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade and freedom of navigation.”

Trump also blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for lifting sanctions on Iran right before “what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.”

“As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” the president declared.

While the decertification stops short of pulling out of the agreement, the move gives the decision to Congress as to whether to reimpose sanctions that were originally lifted in 2015.

“It remains to be seen what Congress will decide, but ultimately, I think there will be support for the president to deal with then non-nuclear sources of Iranian aggression,” Ben Taleblu said. “While some may see the decertification as akin to a withdrawal from the JCPOA, that would be a mistake.”

The 2015 deal was negotiated along with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.

US law states that the Trump administration must certify every 90 days whether it believes that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. While international nuclear inspectors and US intelligence agencies say that Iran has been in compliance, the Trump administration has argued that Tehran has violated the spirit of the deal through ballistic missile testing and its regional aggression.

The Trump administration has been working with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to devise a plan for legislation that would set new conditions for US participation.

“We have provided a route to overcome deficiencies and to keep the administration in the deal,” Corker told reporters during a conference call on Friday, “and actually make it the kind of deal that it should have been in the first place.”

According to the New York Times, the Trump administration is asking Congress to establish “trigger points,” which would prompt the US  to reimpose sanctions if certain conditions are met. These could include continued ballistic missile launches by Iran, a refusal by Iran to extend constraints on its nuclear fuel production, aggressive regional behavior, or intelligence that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

Congress will also seek to address the so-called “sunset clauses” in the agreement, which allow Iran to have a pathway to the bomb no later than 2030.

Trump also said that he reserved the right to cancel the deal if Congress does not come up with a solution.

“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” he said. “It is under continuous review and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.”

While Republican leaders seemed open to the idea of renegotiating the Iran deal, senior Democrats, even those who opposed the original 2015 deal, denounced Trump’s move.

“I strongly disagree with the president’s reckless, political decision and his subsequent threat to Congress,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Despite his assertions to the contrary, the President’s rhetoric and actions today directly threaten US national security and damage our credibility and reputation on the world stage.”

Shortly after Trump’s speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a live address that the American leader could not decide the fate of the deal on his own.

“This is an international, multilateral deal that has been ratified by the UN Security Council. It is a UN document. Is it possible for a president to unilaterally decertify this deal? Apparently, he’s not in the know.”

Prior to Trump’s address, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been a strong critic of the deal, to update him on the contents of Trump’s strategy.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Netanyahu urged the world community to “fix or nix” the nuclear deal.

Netanyahu praised Trump’s decision in a video on Friday, saying that Trump had “boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime.”

“If the Iran deal is left unchanged, one thing is absolutely certain — in a few years’ time, the world’s foremost terrorist regime will have an arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu said that Trump’s actions have led to an opportunity to fix “this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism.”

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said that the Iranian agreement was “working and delivering,” and that Trump did not have the power to terminate it.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the UK, France and Germany, who were all involved in the 2015 agreement, said in a joint statement that they remain committed to the deal.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that they “encourage the US Administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the US and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.”

Nevertheless, Behnam said that most European leaders understand the threat that Tehran poses and the deficiencies in the nuclear agreement.  Behnam said that now is the time for the US to engage in diplomacy with Europe.

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