President Donald Trump has signaled that he might declare Iran non-compliant by mid-October, the next time he is required to sign a three-monthly certification of the nuclear deal. Under a law passed by Congress, the State Department must notify lawmakers every 90 days of Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, or JCPOA nuclear deal. “I think they’ll be noncompliant,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal in August. Failure to issue the certification triggers a process that allows Congress to re-impose on an expedited schedule sanctions waived under the nuclear accord.
The president attacked the agreement throughout his election campaign. Back then, he called it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” The US still has many sanctions on Iran, including those not related to its nuclear program and new ones imposed since President Trump took office. He imposed new sanctions on multiple Iranian entities and individuals in February after Tehran defied a United Nations Security Council resolution by testing ballistic missiles. All in all, Trump has imposed a raft of sanctions against Iran, most notably a full-fledged package US Congress bill he signed into law early August. Now the president seems hell-bent on ditching the deal.
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, says Trump "has grounds" to declare that Iran is not complying with the 2015 nuclear deal. According to her, should the president not certify Iranian compliance, he may choose to leave the decision on whether to quit the deal to Congress.
Sebastian Gorka, a veteran national security expert who served as a key adviser to President Donald Trump until his resignation late last month, believes the administration must end the landmark nuclear deal with Iran. According to him, the deal has only empowered the Islamic Republic and aided its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has published an undelivered presidential memo outlining an explicit roadmap for ridding the international community of the agreement.
It became harder politically to scrap the deal as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared on August 31 that that the latest inspections had found no evidence that the country is breaching the agreement. In its quarterly report, the IAEA found that Iran’s supply and enrichment level of uranium fuel were well within the allowed limits of the agreement. The report stated that Iran’s supply of heavy water, used in reactors that can produce plutonium, another nuclear-weapons fuel, also was within the limits. The report does not preclude the US from coming up with its own finding that Iran is in violation. In July, the US intelligence community and Washington’s P5+1 partners assessed that Iran was meeting its commitments.
Pulling out unilaterally would create great difficulties as Russia, the UK, China, France, and Germany – the states which are parties to the agreement as the P5+1 - have all expressed strong support for it and have warned that if Mr. Trump withdraws, the United States would be isolated on the issue. European companies have renewed operations in Iran. For instance, French Total has signed a $5 billion contract to develop the South Pars gas field. In April, the EU signed a nuclear safety agreement with Iran. Volkswagen and Peugeot carmakers are back on the Iranian market.
The best option for the US is to make Iran take a unilateral decision to withdraw. It will avoid the rift with other parties to the deal and criticism from American companies willing to enter the Iranian market. It will also be a step taken to accomplish the main goal behind the administration’s actions - to get rid of major competitor to US energy interests.
Finding Iran in non-compliance to re-impose even more sanctions could provoke Tehran into tearing the deal up. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has warned that while his country won’t be the first to violate the terms of the accord, it also won’t stand by and allow the US to disregard its own obligations.
On August 13, 2017, the Iranian parliament approved the allocation of an additional $520 million for the development of the missile program and support for foreign military operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) received wide coverage. On August 15, 2017 President Rouhani announced that Iran could leave the nuclear agreement in a matter of hours should the US impose new sanctions.
On August 22, 2017 Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, warned that the agency can resume uranium enrichment up to 20% in five days. Iran passed legislation in 2015 that could require Tehran to resume enrichment of uranium-235 up to 20 percent, which is closer to weapons grade than the 3.67 percent limit under the nuclear deal, if another party violates the agreement. The proportion over 20% is required for the construction of a gun-type nuclear device. The text of the deal states that Iran will treat such a reintroduction or re-imposition of the sanctions waived as “grounds to cease preforming its commitments” in whole or in part.
There is another aspect to the problem. If the United States leaves the deal, there would be little reason for North Korea or any other state willing to acquire its own nuclear potential to negotiate because as the US will be viewed as an reliable dealmaker, prone to back out of agreements as easily as it makes them.
With no strong evidence of Iran’s failure to comply, the move would violate US commitments and could enable Iran to cite the America’s breach as justification for restarting currently prohibited nuclear activities.
By terminating the support for the deal, the US would undermine the position of moderate President Rouhani and strengthen the hand of radicals in Tehran. If the goal is reached and Iran is provoked into abandoning the agreement, other countries of the region will aspire to go nuclear. Failing to comply with the JCPOA by any party and the resumption of nuclear program by Iran can lead to intensification of the development of similar programs in neighboring countries of the region and, ultimately, to violation of the regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The US will face more challenges while the world will become less safe. Former CIA Director John Brennan has warned that scrapping the Iran deal would be “disastrous” and the “height of folly.” Perhaps, he was right.