• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Iran Deal: Dead For Now, But Bound To Be Raised?

October 2017


What is the purpose, President Trump mused Friday afternoon, of a deal that only delays Iran’s nuclear capability for a short period of time? In posing the question this way, Trump seems to have a point. Is our myopia misguided? Is the international community’s Iran Deal—which was collectively agreed upon and codified in 2015—another instance of us kicking the can down the road? President Trump certainly thinks so. If his assessment is right, it’s a well-worn road with which we’ve become too well-acquainted. We’re only now beginning to witness where such a road might end as North Korea descends toward DEFCON 1.


In defiance of his administration’s better wishes, President Trump decided to abrogate the Iranian nuclear agreement, formally known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”, or JCPOA. He did this not by negating the old deal or affirming a new one, but by refusing to re-certify the legislation as it stands. His reasons for doing so were many, but ultimately, inapplicable to the matter at hand. This was evidenced in the days prior to Trump’s pronouncement. While he readied himself and the press for his big reveal, his cabinet officials corralled to a different tune. All expressed their continued support for the deal.


They, along with all other allegiants to the agreement—including China, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia—confessed that Iran indeed has been and continues to be in “technical compliance” with the deal’s stipulations. His top officials made this known; Generals Mattis, McMaster, and Dunford and Secretary of State Tillerson advocated publicly for the U.S. to remain faithful to it. Their chorus, however, was insufficiently convincing. No matter how dissonant he and his staff sounded on this message, President Trump was not to be deterred.


After certifying the deal twice before (a task incumbent upon the president under Congress’s “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act”, or INARA, which requires the Commander-in-Chief’s authorization every ninety days) it became increasingly unlikely that he would do so again. For years Trump has bemoaned what he called “One of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”. His overt opprobrium for the deal, which was made apparent during the earliest days of his presidential campaign, presaged this most recent action. There was never a time when his contempt for the Iran deal, or for that matter, NAFTA, TPP, or the Paris Climate Accord, wasn’t fully conspicuous.


The pull-out is completely predictable, but it isn’t predicated on sound logic. Trump cited Tehran’s eschewal of the “spirit of the deal” as the reason for his abstention on Friday. He believes Iran’s government is subverting the nuclear agreement in ways superfluous to its core stipulations. By testing ballistic missiles, abetting radical Islamist groups, and supporting Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime, Trump believes that for all intents and purposes, Iran has nullified the deal. Certainly, these are horrid infringements on humanitarian concerns and ought to be redressed, but not in this context. It pains me to say that these societal shortcomings do not break the deal’s technical bindings.


The deal was much more sober and specific. It required the convening Europeans and Americans, who had grown increasingly desperate for a deal, to swallow their ardent advocacy for Iran’s amelioration. The Iranian government simply wouldn’t have agreed to sweeping societal reforms dictated from the West. Additionally, not all nations enmeshed in the negotiations were pushing for them (namely China and Russia—the latter of which continues smiling kindly upon Assad’s authoritarian reign). Stalling Iran’s nuclear “breakout” was the exigent demand. Progressive reform, sadly, was not.


In return for lifted sanctions, which were slowly beginning to stifle the nation’s economy, Iran agreed to meet a few important measures. As outlined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran would be unable to proliferate its nuclear capacity beyond the country’s civilian demands. This is an essential criterion that would serve the world well. When a country has its nuclear infrastructure in place, it is faced with two realities. One is of the nuclear material’s availability and the other of its potentiality. Potentiality, in many cases, takes advantage of availability and leads to weaponization. You’ll recall that it was in this manner that North Korea was able to fashion its nuclear infrastructure at the Cold War’s outset. The USSR provided Kim Il-Sung with materials and know-how for his now penurious people to become energy independent. Moscow’s magnanimity missed its mark, and Kim Il-Sung directed the nuclear plants for other uses. Fast-forward two torturous regimes and we’re confronted with Little Rocket Man and ICBMs.


To ensure its availability would not, in fact, lead to the tantalizing potential for nuclear proliferation, Iran’s government has reduced its yellow-cake cache, reduced its enriched uranium, removed its centrifuges, and provided unprecedented access to its nuclear facilities for internationally-supervised audits. It’s astonishing to consider just how unprecedented this is, and how infeasible this would have seemed only two administrations ago. Few would believe that any nation listed in Bush’s “Axis of Evil” would ever allow this level of international easement.


And surprisingly, by most measures, Iran has abided by these restrictions. While there have been allegations that inspectors haven’t enjoyed full auditorial freedom when perusing Iran’s power plants, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IEA) says the government has been fulfilling its obligations. President Trump mentioned that Tehran “intimidates” said inspectors, but it’s difficult to know for certain if this is the case.


Trump’s overall analysis is far less sanguine that his predecessor’s. President Obama saw the Iran Deal as an essential, albeit imperfect, step in the right direction. It was a necessary exigency to stabilize the region for the short-term. Along with the Paris Climate Accord (which Trump has also suspended), 2015’s Iranian negotiation was the apotheosis of Obama’s internationalism on display.


Just like that, we see another chink in Obama’s accomplishments. The onus now rests ponderously on Congress to decide the deal’s fate. It’s difficult to imagine where the Iran deal finds itself in Congress’s considerable continuum of issues. Surely it’s toward the bottom, as they flounder to address sundry topics like healthcare, tax reform, immigration policy, and the debt ceiling. In importance to your average American citizen, the Iran deal displaces none of these domestic issues. It’s an added strain, though, to an already burdened and buckling congress. A legislature that has proven itself continuously maladroit at home will now attempt to maneuver Iran’s future.


Best of all, they’ll have sixty days to do so. This deadline, which will come in the month of December, is coterminous with the conclusion of President Trump’s Democratic debt-ceiling deal with “Chuck and Nancy”. That too will need to be re-negotiated when the time comes.

As for Iran, however, Congress has three options. First, they can opt to rescind America’s involvement and re-impose sanctions. This most unlikely scenario would re-establish the status quo ante. Any progress made thus far would be stymied, and Tehran probably wouldn’t return to the negotiating table with alacrity. Iran would suffer to some degree economically, but more importantly, American eyes would lose invaluable access to Iran’s nuclear facilities.


The second option available to Congress would be to re-negotiate the deal. The likelihood of this happening rests between improbable and impracticable. Forgetting for a moment that the Republican-led House and Senate can’t even negotiate within their own chambers in America, it’s beyond my imaginative capacity to think they could do so in Arabia. What’s more, Iran has repeatedly declared its disinclination to pursue this route. Their recalcitrantly wed to the deal as it stands, or no deal at all.


It’s not only Iran that has taken this position. All other involved nations, excepting Iran, have said much the same. Germany, England, and France have steadfastly iterated their intention to remain with the deal. This leaves America isolated in this inextricably international affair. Our imposition of sanctions or our insistence on newfangled negotiations would be entirely unilateral, and as such, much less impactful.


Which leads to Congress’s final option: they could do nothing. By acting through inaction, our milquetoast Congress would certify the deal by default. The Iran Deal would thenceforth continue as it has for the past two years unaltered. This, howsoever frustrating for foreign hawks or fans of Trump, is the most likely scenario. Congress could avoid having to struggle for a consensus or negotiate from a weakened position. And because the ball is in Congress’s court, Trump can claim no loss in seeing Iran Deal survive unscathed. Which, in my humble opinion, it ultimately will.

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