The next steps if Trump does not re­cer­tify Iran deal

Nu­clear pact won’t be void, but a re­turn of sanc­tions could back­fire

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Tracy Wilkin­son tracy.wilkin­son@la­times.com Twit­ter: @Tra­cyKWilkin­son

NEW YORK — Any day now, Pres­i­dent Trump is ex­pected to take steps that have the po­ten­tial to un­ravel one of the most im­por­tant nu­clear anti-pro­lif­er­a­tion deals of the cen­tury.

Trump has in­di­cated he will de­clare that the agree­ment the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and five other world pow­ers reached with Iran in 2015 to sus­pend its nu­clear pro­gram is not suf­fi­ciently strong to ben­e­fit “U.S. national se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.” Iran should no longer be seen as in com­pli­ance with the ac­cord, Trump is ex­pected to say.

His judg­ment is shared by a num­ber of con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions and mem­bers of Con­gress. Many oth­ers, in­clud­ing sev­eral of his top Cab­i­net of­fi­cials, most Euro­pean diplo­mats and the United Na­tions, dis­agree with him and say the deal is work­ing.

What im­pact would re­fusal to cer­tify have?

Re­fus­ing to cer­tify is not the same as with­draw­ing com­pletely from the deal. It would not au­to­mat­i­cally reim­pose eco­nomic sanc­tions on Iran. That is be­cause the re­quire­ment to cer­tify Iran’s com­pli­ance with the deal ev­ery 90 days is writ­ten into U.S. law and is not part of the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment.

With two tracks, Trump can do both: Con­tinue to at­tack the deal with­out of­fi­cially void­ing it.

The re­fusal to cer­tify kicks the is­sue to Con­gress, opening a 60-day pe­riod for de­bate. The of­fi­cial dead­line for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is Oct. 15, al­though some White House sources have sug­gested Trump would act be­fore that. On Tues­day, White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said Trump had “reached a de­ci­sion on an over­all Iran strat­egy” but de­clined to say when the an­nounce­ment would come.

What would Con­gress do?

When the deal was be­ing ne­go­ti­ated, a ma­jor­ity in Con­gress op­posed it. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu made an un­prece­dented ap­pear­ance be­fore a joint meet­ing of Con­gress to de­nounce the deal and what he de­scribed as the dan­gers posed by Iran, going around the White House to op­pose one of Pres­i­dent Obama’s top pri­or­i­ties.

None­the­less, Con­gress al­lowed the deal to take ef­fect, ap­prov­ing a com­pro­mise that in­cluded the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ment.

To­day, opin­ion is more di­vided. Even among some law­mak­ers who have crit­i­cized the deal in the past, such as Sen. Ben Cardin of Mary­land, the rank­ing Democrat on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, there is a feel­ing that stick­ing with it, how­ever flawed, is far bet­ter than blow­ing it up. The deal at least sus­tains con­trol over Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, they ar­gue, at a time when ten­sion with nu­clear-armed North Korea is at a fever pitch.

Back­ers of the deal worry that hard-line op­po­nents could use the 60-day pe­riod to “snap back” into place eco­nomic sanc­tions on Iran that were re­moved as part of the nu­clear agree­ment.

Oth­ers, how­ever, say that re­fusal to cer­tify (of­ten in­cor­rectly de­scribed as “de­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion”) would be the first step in strength­en­ing the agree­ment and putting greater con­trols on Tehran.

What did the Iran deal do?

In ex­change for get­ting rid of most of its cen­trifuges, dis­abling its plu­to­ni­umpro­duc­ing heavy wa­ter re­ac­tor at Arak and agree­ing to reg­u­lar in­spec­tions, Iran re­ceived con­sid­er­able sanc­tions re­lief: read­mit­tance to the in­ter­na­tional bank­ing sys­tem, per­mis­sion to trade on the oil market and the un­freez­ing of bil­lions of dol­lars in over­seas as­sets.

How do we know the deal is work­ing?

We don’t, not with to­tal cer­tainty.

How­ever, the United Na­tions watchdog agency charged with mon­i­tor­ing Iran, the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency, has re­peat­edly said the coun­try is com­ply­ing with the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the deal. IAEA Direc­tor Gen­eral Yukiya Amano re­it­er­ated that as­sess­ment again this week.

Most par­ties to the deal — Rus­sia, China, France, Bri­tain and Ger­many, as well as the Euro­pean Union — ac­cept that judg­ment. Why does the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion say Iran is in vi­o­la­tion?

Re­gard­less of its tech­ni­cal com­pli­ance with the terms of the agree­ment, few would dis­agree that Iran is guilty of other be­hav­ior in the re­gion that the U.S. la­bels as desta­bi­liz­ing, in­clud­ing the test­ing of bal­lis­tic mis­siles and sup­port for mil­i­tant groups in sev­eral coun­tries.

Those sorts of acts, which don’t in­volve nu­clear devel­op­ment, were not cov­ered by the agree­ment. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who has sup­ported stick­ing with the deal, has said he be­lieves Tehran vi­o­lates its “spirit” by con­tin­u­ing to pro­mote desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tions in the re­gion.

Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the U.N., goes fur­ther than Tiller­son. She has said she be­lieves Iran has con­tin­ued to se­cretly move ahead with ef­forts to de­velop nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. She con­tends that nu­mer­ous Ira­nian mil­i­tary sites are off-lim­its to U.N. in­spec­tions.

Some Obama-era of­fi­cials had hoped the nu­clear deal would give a boost to so-called prag­ma­tists in Tehran over more hard-line fac­tions. Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, who sup­ported the agree­ment, won easy re­elec­tion in May.

But the rhetoric from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion seems to have uni­fied Iran’s fac­tions, and there has been no dis­cernible de­crease in Ira­nian sup­port for armed mil­i­tants in Ye­men, Syria and else­where.

What do U.S. al­lies say?

Euro­pean diplo­mats in Washington and here at the United Na­tions in New York have been lob­by­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion vig­or­ously to try to save the agree­ment, warn­ing that U.S. cred­i­bil­ity and trust­wor­thi­ness are also at stake.

Going back on the deal with Iran would dis­cour­age other coun­tries, such as North Korea, from trust­ing any agree­ment the U.S. might ne­go­ti­ate, some al­lies warn.

On Tues­day, a spokesper­son for Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May said in a state­ment that she had called Trump and “reaf­firmed the U.K.’s strong com­mit­ment to the deal along­side our Euro­pean part­ners, say­ing it was vi­tally im­por­tant for regional se­cu­rity.”

How would Iran re­act if the U.S. reim­posed sanc­tions?

Re­in­stat­ing sanc­tions, even if the U.S. could do so with­out its Euro­pean, Rus­sian and Chi­nese part­ners, would anger Iran and per­haps cause Tehran to quit the deal.

“Over the long term, I think the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would not mind if it could goad Iran into vi­o­lat­ing terms of the deal,” Jon Wolf­sthal, a se­nior non­pro­lif­er­a­tion of­fi­cial in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said in a re­cent fo­rum at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, a think tank.

The U.S. would prob­a­bly lose much of its lever­age with Iran if it re­stores sanc­tions.

Do­ing so also might be an un­nec­es­sary provo­ca­tion. Washington can im­pose sanc­tions on Iran with­out us­ing those as­so­ci­ated with the nu­clear pro­gram. For ex­am­ple, in July, Con­gress ap­proved new eco­nomic sanc­tions on Iran and North Korea (and on Rus­sia, which made Trump re­luc­tant to sign the bill).

“I’m very con­cerned they will let it die by a thou­sand cuts,” Wolf­sthal said.

Pablo Martinez Mon­si­vais As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT Trump with, from left, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, U.N. Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley and national se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor H.R. McMaster. Ha­ley has called for U.N. in­spec­tions of Ira­nian mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties.

Ira­nian Pres­i­dency Of­fice

IRA­NIAN Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, who sup­ported the 2015 nu­clear agree­ment that eased sanc­tions against his coun­try, won easy re­elec­tion in May.

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