It is no secret that Donald Trump is not a fan of the Iran nuclear deal. He railed against it on the campaign trail and, even though he’s been convinced to re-certify it twice, he’s still not happy. The last certification could just as easily have been notice that we were leaving the deal.
This is the problem.
Rex Tillerson, who is doing a lot of good things, is essentially ‘home alone’ in Foggy Bottom. He keeps declining candidate lists the White House sends him and, as a result, he has been captured by the managers he inherited from the Obama administration.
Washington was briefly abuzz on the afternoon of July 17 when rumors began to circulate that President Trump was eager to declare that Iran was in breach of the conditions laid out in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA).
Those receptive antennas were further heightened given the previous signals sent. After all, the State Department already released talking points to reporters on the decision to recertify Iran. The Treasury Department also had a package of fresh sanctions on over a dozen Iranian individuals and entities ready to announce to appease the hawks who were eager to cut loose from the deal.
But Trump didn’t want to recertify Iran, nor did he want to the last time around in April. That evening, a longtime Middle East analyst close to senior White House officials involved in the discussions described the scene to me: “Tillerson essentially told the president, ‘we just aren’t ready with our allies to decertify.’ The president retorted, ‘Isn’t it your job to get our allies ready?’ to which Tillerson said, ‘Sorry sir, we’re just not ready.’” According to this source, Secretary Tillerson pulled the same maneuver when it came to recertification in April by waiting until the last minute before finally admitting the State Department wasn’t ready. On both occasions he simply offered something to the effect of, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”
That for the second time, Team Tillerson forced the president to recertify Iran because they prepared no other options appears to have left a mark on Trump.
Barack Obama holdovers are driving the State Department’s Iran policy.
They include Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Chris Backemeyer, who previously served as the director for Iran at the National Security Council (NSC) under Obama; and Deputy Assistant Secretary and former US special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney. The first two were directly involved in the recertification fiasco – twice. They, among others, made their careers selling the Iran deal and are dedicated to its preservation.
In April, the first draft of the language “was full of Obama-era lines” including several falsehoods promoting the utility of the JCPOA, such as the deal verifiably puts Iran a year away from a nuclear weapon, this source explained.
“There was a huge fight after they wrote it because some said it was too pro-deal and it used all kinds of Obama language.”
“The White House went ballistic,” he said, “and they forced rewrites until they had a statement that was just a few lines.”
Right now, the best bet is that Trump refuses to recertify the deal in September. Trump has nearly said as much:
Thanks to the terrible Iran deal, "Iran has become embolden. That won't take place much longer" –@realDonaldTrump at Youngstown speech.
— Nick Short (@PoliticalShort) July 25, 2017
But there is a new move afoot to save the deal by appearing to be tough on Iran. This is the key part of the story:
Last week… Shannon floated the proposal to the European members of the Joint Commission that oversees the deal… To force inspections of new sites in Iran, the U.S. would need to enlist the support of the IAEA and a majority of the countries in the deal. But the U.S. has run into early resistance over concerns it has yet to produce a “smoking gun”… The deal’s provisions for inspections of military facilities, or “undeclared sites,” involve a complex process with plenty of opportunities for Iran to stall. Tehran can propose alternatives to on-site inspections, or reject the request, which would trigger a 24-day process for the Joint Commission countries to override the rejection. That could drag on for months. And under ambiguities built into the deal, it’s unclear whether Iran must allow IAEA inspectors into military sites, or whether the Iranians can take their own environmental samples and send them to the IAEA for testing.
This process, undertaken to give the illusion of toughness, can drag on literally indefinitely: it requires the State Department to persuade the Europeans to persuade the IAEA to persuade the Iranians to allow inspections, and in between there need to be bilateral and multilateral intelligence exchanges, and anyway the JCPOA allows Iran to engage in dialogue with the IAEA indefinitely without ever violating the deal. If there are inspections underway and the Iranians seem to be cooperating, it becomes much harder for Trump to pull the plug on the deal.
Trump’s instincts here are correct. The only argument for staying in the deal is that Iran is complying in good faith with the letter and the spirit of the agreement. It isn’t. All of Iran’s benefits were front-loaded, hence the $1.7 billion in small bills shipped by Obama to Tehran and sanctions relief. So they have no incentive to comply as they get absolutely noting because Russia and China will never again allow the UNSC to put sanctions on Iran. Our best play is to give our allies notice that we’re out of the deal and for the administration to hit Iran with destabilizing sanctions and other operations. And Rex Tillerson needs to accept some White House nominees so he can start representing the Administration’s foreign policy or he needs to resign.