What you need to know about Trump’s hard-line strategy on Iran

President Donald Trump speaks about the Iran deal from the Diplomatic Reception room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2017. Trump announced he will not certify the Iran nuclear deal and warned that the US could leave the Iran deal 'at any time.'
President Donald Trump speaks about the Iran deal from the Diplomatic Reception room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2017. Trump announced he will not certify the Iran nuclear deal and warned that the US could leave the Iran deal 'at any time.' AFP/Getty Images

Here’s what you need to know about President Donald Trump’s new, hard-line strategy on Iran:

It doesn’t end the Iran nuclear deal immediately but could eventually kill it.

According to U.S. law, the president has to certify every 90 days that Iran is living up to the terms of the nuclear pact and that the deal is in the national security interest of the United States.

Trump “decertified.” In short, that means that he said Iran was violating the terms and claimed that the deal served no purpose because it only delayed Iran’s nuclear capability for the short term. In reality, both international inspectors and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson say Iran is basically adhering to the terms of the deal, which include dismantling the bulk of its centrifuges and sending its large stocks of fissile material out of the country. The other parties to the pact – our European allies, Russia and China – also say Iran is complying.

But Trump’s decertification doesn’t mean the U.S. will withdraw – in the short term. He has kicked the can to Congress, which, according to U.S. law, has 60 days to decide whether it will reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the pact. And he has asked Congress to “fix” the deal by demanding that Iran accept new terms. If Tehran refuses, the nuclear-related sanctions would be reinstated. That would kill the deal.

Many of the changes Trump and his security team seek make sense, but not in the way he is going about it.

Trump put forward two sets of demands: nuclear and non-nuclear. The first set seeks to force Iran to revamp the nuclear treaty without further negotiations. This would include extending its timeline indefinitely rather than allowing certain provisions to “sunset” in 10 or 15 years.

The non-nuclear demands include curbing Iran’s missile program and its destabilizing activities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast.

The problem with Trump’s nuclear demands is that, while they address weaknesses in the pact, they cannot be imposed by U.S. fiat. Washington endorsed this deal along with the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – France, Britain, Russia and China – plus Germany. They want the nuclear deal to remain in place and wouldn’t go along with restoration of international sanctions.

As for the non-nuclear demands, our allies are eager to work together with Washington to curb Iran’s missile activity and Mideast adventurism. Moscow and Beijing might be brought aboard. But to get international cooperation, any new sanctions would have to be devised outside of the nuclear program. In other words, the nuclear deal must stay in place.

If the nuclear deal is killed, it would be harder, not easier, to curb Iran’s bad behavior.

When the deal was sealed, the Iranians were within two months of being capable of producing nuclear weapons. Even if Iran broke out of the deal, that time has been extended to a year because of the dismantling of the Iranian program. And under the deal, the ayatollahs have no viable path to a bomb for well over a decade.

To unilaterally destroy the deal would leave Iran free to pursue a bomb, while putting the onus for the crisis on Washington. It would shred hopes of global cooperation in curbing Iran’s missile program or its proxy wars in the Mideast. If Trump considers Iran’s activities to be so dangerous, imagine the danger if Iran were freed of nuclear restraints.

This is why Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have affirmed publicly that it is in the U.S. national security interest to remain in the deal. It is why leading Israeli national security experts have said the same.

What happens now is largely in the hands of Congress.

Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., are working on legislation to “fix” the Iran deal. If that legislation proposes new sanctions – outside the Iran deal – on Iran’s missile program or Revolutionary Guards, that won’t kill the deal.

Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has declared himself ready to lead a joint European push to supplement the deal with new curbs on Iran.

But if Congress passes legislation demanding Iran meet new terms or else face the restoration of sanctions already dropped, that would spell the end of the nuclear deal. And in his speech, Trump implied he would terminate the deal himself (U.S. law gives him the right) if Congress didn’t impose such harsh terms.

So the United States is headed down a path where we could wind up with the worst of all possible outcomes: an Iran freed of nuclear restraints at a time when it is expanding its geographical reach. And if Congress does nothing, Trump could still end the deal on his own.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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