Play it straight with Iran

Trump’s vac­il­la­tion over whether to cer­tify nu­clear deal com­pli­ance leaves doubt about the fu­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion last week cer­ti­fied that Iran is com­ply­ing with the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment plac­ing lim­its on its nu­clear pro­gram — but for a while it looked as if the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion wouldn’t hap­pen.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials had dis­trib­uted talk­ing points ex­plain­ing the de­ci­sion and sched­uled a con­fer­ence call for re­porters. But then Pres­i­dent Trump balked at sign­ing off on the rec­om­men­da­tion of key aides, in­clud­ing the sec­re­taries of State and De­fense and his Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor.

Even­tu­ally Trump agreed to the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, af­ter be­ing pre­sented with a plan for tougher mea­sures against Iran in other ar­eas. The next day the Trea­sury De­part­ment im­posed fi­nan­cial sanc­tions on 18 ad­di­tional peo­ple and en­ti­ties for sup­port­ing Iran’s armed ser­vices and Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, a force com­manded by Iran’s Supreme Leader.

But this wasn’t a case of all’s well that ends well. Although Trump hasn’t fol­lowed through with a cam­paign prom­ise to dis­man­tle the Ira­nian nu­clear agree­ment, he clearly re­mains deeply sus­pi­cious of the deal, even though it has ac­com­plished its pur­pose of pre­vent­ing Iran from ob­tain­ing a nu­clear weapon and even though Iran gen­er­ally has com­plied with its terms. (There have been some vi­o­la­tions; for ex­am­ple, Iran has at times ex­ceeded lim­its on its heavy water stock­pile. But in gen­eral the agree­ment has been a suc­cess.)

By law the pres­i­dent must de­clare ev­ery 90 days whether Iran has met four con­di­tions re­lated to the 2015 agree­ment it reached with the five per­ma­nent mem­bers of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, Ger­many and the Euro­pean Union. The con­di­tions are that Iran is im­ple­ment­ing the pact; that it is not in “ma­te­rial breach” of its terms; that it is not ad­vanc­ing its nu­clear weapons pro­gram; and that sanc­tions re­lief is ap­pro­pri­ate.

The cliffhange­r cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing last week’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion leave doubt about the fu­ture. On Fri­day, For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine omi­nously re­ported that Trump this week as­signed White House staffers, rather than the State De­part­ment, to make the po­ten­tial case for with­hold­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nu­clear deal.

The un­cer­tainty is bad for two rea­sons: It cre­ates di­vi­sions with U.S. al­lies, which over­whelm­ingly sup­port the nu­clear agree­ment, and it could tempt Iran to ab­ro­gate the agree­ment. Af­ter all, the deal has al­ready granted Iran much of the re­lief it sought from eco­nomic sanc­tions.

As a can­di­date Trump de­nounced the nu­clear agree­ment as “the worst deal ever.” As pres­i­dent, he has com­plained that Iran was “not living up to the spirit of the agree­ment.” What he means by that isn’t clear, but State De­part­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said this week that “Iran’s other ma­lign ac­tiv­i­ties are serv­ing to un­der­cut what­ever pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions to re­gional and in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity were in­tended to emerge” from the nu­clear deal.

It’s true that some — in­clud­ing, per­haps, Pres­i­dent Obama — hoped that the agree­ment would mark the be­gin­ning of Iran’s rap­proche­ment with the West. That clearly hasn’t hap­pened. But the agree­ment it­self was never con­di­tioned on Iran’s good be­hav­ior in other ar­eas. And the coun­try’s “ma­lign ac­tiv­i­ties” — whether they be test­ing bal­lis­tic mis­siles or sup­port­ing groups like Hezbol­lah — aren’t pro­hib­ited by the nu­clear pact. They can, how­ever, be ad­dressed sep­a­rately. Last month the Se­nate ap­proved leg­is­la­tion that would in­crease sanc­tions against Iran for re­cent bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests. (The same leg­is­la­tion also con­tains sanc­tions against Rus­sia, which has slowed it in the House.)

It’s time for Trump to stop play­ing games with U.S. sup­port for the nu­clear agree­ment. So long as Iran com­plies with the terms, the U.S. should live up to its obli­ga­tions.

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