When President Donald Trump decertifies the Iran nuclear deal as expected later this week, his core message will go far beyond Iran: a claim that he won’t make the kind of terrible deals that he ascribes to Barack Obama.
Yes, once again, Trump will be talking tough; but, as usual, he will not be listening. Officials in his own administration, most recently Defense Secretary James Mattis, have said it is in America’s interest to stick with the agreement, even though it has flaws.
Sitting next to Mattis at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford testified that Iran is “not in material breach” of the nuclear deal.
That is the key question that Congress required the president to answer every three months: whether Iran is obeying the restrictions imposed by the deal that it reached with six nations in 2015. President Obama was happy to do so, and President Trump begrudgingly sent the certification to Capitol Hill in both mid-April and mid-July.
People close to Trump say he vowed not to do it again. He may not have evidence that Iran is cheating on the nuclear deal, but lately he has spoken about Iran not honoring “the spirit of the agreement” — because it is developing long-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads, and because it continues to support terrorists and other instigators of unrest in many countries.
The decision that Trump intends to announce with a flourish of TV-cliffhanger suspense will not be the same as tearing up the nuclear agreement. But by refusing to certify Iranian compliance, at or before the Oct. 15 deadline, the president gets to make his big point about being entirely different from Obama; and he also gets to leave the truly fateful decision to Congress. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed in 2015, the Senate and the House will have 60 days to reactivate the sanctions against Iran that were lifted that year.
If Congress does manage to muster majorities in favor of punishing Iran, that would be the moment that the other signatories, including Britain, Germany, and Russia, would see as American withdrawal.
Whether slowly or quickly, a sequence of negative global reactions would follow. America’s allies would be angry at the United States. Iran might declare that it will return to nuclear enrichment and research. Israel would likely accelerate dormant plans for airstrikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities.
If all-out combat were to break out between Israel and Iran, America would almost surely be drawn into the conflict — on Israel’s side, of course. The ensuing crisis might not be quite as grave as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has suggested, but we might all start to understand why the Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee worried aloud that Trump could be putting us “on the path to World War III.”
Trump is proud to be a disruptor, a president who does not behave like his predecessors and believes that the United States must win in all conflicts — great or small. Could it be that Trump intends to start all the ripples that will emanate from his splash of non-certification?
He seems to believe that because he talks tough on almost every international challenge, America’s foes will wilt. If you want to intimidate the North Koreans, he would say, you must not be soft in any way toward the Iranians.
On the other hand, European diplomats in Washington have begun to contact members of Congress with an urgent message: Do not reimpose the pre-2015 sanctions on Iran, because that would constitute America’s exit from the nuclear deal. Negative results, they argue, would include North Korea never negotiating with the West.
Because how could anyone trust that the United States would honor any nuclear deal?
Dan Raviv, Washington correspondent of i24 News, is author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”