Explained

What Actually Happens Now That Trump Decertified the Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump, who has called the Iran agreement 'a very very bad deal,' is facing a near-consensus among his diplomatic and military advisers against killing it. What will decertification do for the agreement and the region?

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media before his departure to North Carolina, the White House, Washington, October 7, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media before his departure to North Carolina, the White House, Washington, October 7, 2017. YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he is “decertifying” the nuclear deal with Iran. In what is already a diplomatic process overloaded with obscure jargon – the agreement's full title is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which can mean anything – decertification is a relatively obscure feature. It was a requirement originally imposed by the Republican Congress that every 90 days, the administration certify that the JCPOA is in the United States' national interest and it is therefore still committed to it.

Since his inauguration, Trump has already certified the deal twice, but this time acted otherwise and announced that Iran has gone against the spirit of the deal.

Will decertification kill the Iran deal?

The short answer is no. By U.S. law the Iran deal is neither a formal treaty nor an executive agreement but a “non-binding political commitment.” It would take actual action to break the deal. The agreement will not be invalidated if the Trump administration says it is no longer in favor or committed to it.

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The U.S. is just one of eight signatories of the deal – along with Russia, China, Britain, Germany, France, the European Union and of course Iran. The remaining seven signatories who are still in favor of the deal could continue without the U.S.

Can Trump kill the deal?

Essentially, the Iran deal was an agreement through which the international community dropped the sanctions on Iran that were specifically related to its nuclear development in return for Iran's agreement to impose certain limits on its nuclear research and development, most crucially the level to which it enriches uranium. If the U.S. decided to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, it would be in breach of the JCPOA. That wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of the deal.

Iran and the other signatories could decide to continue with the agreement, though Iran may demand to be compensated for the financial damage incurred by the U.S. sanctions. Trump signed the waiver on the Iranian sanctions last month. These waivers have to be extended every 120 days, so thus far, his administration is not taking action to kill the deal. Decertification, however, is a signal to Congress that it can now go ahead and impose the sanctions itself. Given the fractious relations between the White House and most Democrats and Republicans, along with the lack of any clear bipartisan consensus, it is still unclear whether this will happen before January, when Trump will have to sign the waivers once again – or else the sanctions will be reapplied automatically.

So why isn’t Trump killing the deal himself?

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, September 19, 2017.
Don Emmert / AFP

Trump has called the Iran deal a lot of nasty things – “a very very bad deal” is probably the mildest of these. However, since becoming president he has certified the deal twice and signed the waivers on reimposing sanctions twice. Trying to understand the labyrinthine machinations and motives behind any of Trump’s actions is a lost cause, but the standard explanation for his intention to decertify the deal is that he remains implacably hostile to it, but is facing a near-consensus among his diplomatic and military advisors against killing it outright. Decertification is the middle way. It also allows him to blame Congress of being soft on Iran further down the road, if it chooses not to impose major sanctions.

What will Trump’s decertification do to the Iran deal and the region?

Since the deal is still very much in Iran’s benefit and the diplomatic community adheres to it as an article of belief, the decertification almost certainly won’t kill the deal. It will, however, put its long-term future in doubt and may create additional pressure on Iran to both stick to the limitations of its nuclear program and perhaps even force it to curb its more overt actions in the region.

Is that a bad thing?

The problem with the Iran deal is not that it’s a bad deal, as Trump says. It creates a mechanism that keeps Iran from developing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon. That’s a good thing. The real problem is that the Obama administration and other cheerleaders for the agreement tried to sell it to the world as a major breakthrough for the Middle East, when in reality it solved only one problem – while emboldening Iran, together with Russia, to double down on its support for the mass-murdering regime of Bashar Assad in Syria as well as increasing its support for other murderous militias in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. If decertifying leads eventually to the collapse of the Iran deal, that would indeed be a bad thing. But Iran needs the deal more than any other nation and it won’t rush to abandon it. If the jeopardy that decertification brings increases pressure to curb Iran’s malignant influence in the region, it could turn out to be a positive development.

Could the authors of the Iran deal have done more to safeguard it from Trump?

Second-guessing the indefatigable negotiators of the JCPOA is pointless at this stage. In 2015, when they signed the deal, no one believed that a President Trump would be sitting in the White House. The Obama administration saw the Iran deal as just one element in a wider realignment in the region and the cornerstone of a renewed engagement between Iran and the U.S. So far, it has failed to deliver either, and not just because of the rise of Trump. In the year and a half between the signing of the JCPOA and Obama’s departure, no real progress has been made with Iran. This is partly due to the way that the administration’s echo chamber marketed the deal as the best thing for world peace since the Marshall Plan. Iran had no incentive for better behavior in the region when its Western partners made it seem like they needed the deal more than Iran did.

Why is Israel quiet all of a sudden?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave yet another grandiloquent speech at the UN General Assembly last month, laden with quips and sound-bites against the Iran Deal – “fix it, or nix it.” However, in recent days, as the Trump announcement has drawn close, rhetoric from Israel has been largely muted.

There are three possible reasons for this. First, Netanyahu knows that whatever Trump touches usually turns to manure. He hates the Iran deal but doesn’t want to be burned if it goes up in flames. Second, Israel’s more immediate concern right now is Iran’s entrenchment across the border in Syria. For once, the nuclear issue can’t take precedence. Third, just like his own security chiefs, who are not exactly enamored with the deal, Netanyahu begrudgingly realizes that a decade’s respite from the Iranian bomb is not such a bad deal after all.