With political social media aflame over Georgia's special election and rumored tectonic media shifts last evening, this news from the Trump State Department arrived with relatively little fanfare. Was the action a big deal, or something of a nothing burger. We'll examine that question in a moment, but first, here's what happened:
Some liberals greeted the certification with gloating that Trump can't undo President Obama's deal because it's working so well. Some conservatives despaired that Trump was all bluster on Iran, and that he's now providing a patina of bipartisanship to the unilateral and unpopular accord that even Obama and the UN Secretary General have conceded is being violated 'in spirit' by the regime in Tehran. The truth likely lies somewhere in between. You may recall that nearly two years ago, Congress passed legislation to exert some influence over Obama's Iran policy, which the administration deliberately designed to bypass the legislative branch. They did this for good reason: If the nuclear deal itself had come up for a vote, it would have been shot down in a resounding bipartisan rejection. Nevertheless, I argued that passing the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Obama repeatedly threatened to veto, was better than doing nothing:
The legislation (a) prohibits the administration from lifting any sanctions over a two-month review period, (b) forces the White House to turn over every single page of the finalized deal's text, and (c) establishes a recurring 90-day review cycle that persists throughout the duration of the deal. All three of these provisions are valuable: The full text allows opponents to research the granular details and verbiage of the actual accord itself, not a White House "fact sheet." The freeze gives critics a chance to flood the public discussion with substantive criticisms of the agreement. And the ongoing reviews offer a mechanism for a future president to pull the plug.
On the first point, those sanctions did inevitably get lifted, which was Iran's whole incentive to sign on to the accord -- namely, lots and lots of cash (with even more cash flowing in as a result of ransom payments for hostages). On the second point, that legal requirement landed the Obama administration in hot water on several occasions, as undisclosed 'secret side deals' were revealed. But it's the last point that is relevant to yesterday's development. Under the 2015 law, presidential administrations are required to issue reviews attesting to Iran's compliance every three months or so. The Obama White House rubber-stamped the deal with their 90-day progress reports, and now the Trump White House has maintained that continuity. If the new administration had done anything other than issue this certification, it would have been an extraordinary and disruptive act. They've opted for a more cautious approach, for which there are sound political and policy bases: First, though Trump was harshly critical of the terrible agreement on the campaign trail, he repeatedly declined to issue a definitive pledge to rip it up on day one. Instead, he vowed, the US would very strictly enforce its terms and remain hyper-vigilant for Iranian violations. Yesterday's action aligns with his publicly-stated preference.
Second, this White House undoubtedly recognizes that it is not in a strong position to sow more international upheaval at the moment. Without making any value judgments about any of his actions, Trump just bombed Syria, dropped America's most powerful conventional bomb in Afghanistan, and is ratcheting up threats against the crackpot cult in Pyongyang. Accusing Iran of contravening the nuclear agreement, and signaling America's departure from the deal, would overwhelm the administration's foreign policy bandwidth at this point. Third, a day may come when the US has the goods on Tehran, and a dramatic diplomatic confrontation becomes necessary. If that should occur, the United States government must have airtight evidence ready to present to the international community. It seems unlikely that they have such evidence today, so prematurely triggering this alarm without being fully prepared would be rather unwise. This is especially true given the framework installed by Obama that hamstrings America's options for punishing Iran over its ongoing horrendous conduct on the global stage. Allahpundit explains:
Because Iran continues to support terrorism (and always will under the current regime, natch) Trump may decide to reinstate sanctions notwithstanding Iran’s compliance with its nuclear obligations. That would place the United States, not Iran, in violation of the nuclear agreement, and the European parties to the agreement will point to that when they inevitably decline to reinstate sanctions on Iran themselves. (Why punish Shiite terrorists for America’s breach of contract?) Thank Obama for putting the U.S. in a predicament where we’re the bad actor if we decide to cut off money to a terror state that’s engaged in sectarian cleansing in Syria and remains on track to become a nuclear power — legally — by the end of the next decade.
Other potential sanctions to retaliate against Iran's brazen and illegal long-range missile tests have been slow-walked and resisted by Democrats, who fear that "provoking" Tehran could endanger Obama's precious deal. The regime has strategically stoked those fears. The current status quo and policy inertia all benefits Iran, whose leaders are understandably emboldened. Even without cheating, they get tens of billions of dollars, an advanced and internationally-blessed nuclear weapons program within roughly a decade (when Western restrictions automatically begin to expire, with Iran ready to flip the switch back to "on") -- plus a virtually paralyzed US and Europe, whose leaders are fearful that any harsh actions taken in response to Iran's continued rogue weapons testing or material support for terrorism could endanger the nuclear agreement, under which Tehran is already the big winner. Obama left Trump with a tangled mess in which the US faces even fewer viable options to hold Iran accountable for their treacherous conduct around the world. Such is the legacy of "smart power."
What the new administration needs right now is time. Time to find its foreign policy footing, time for already-in-motion gambits to play out, and time to carefully review what Tehran is up to. In that context, checking the re-certification box seems like something of a no-brainer. In its statement yesterday, the State Department stressed that a review remains active, which is appropriate. Secretary of State Tillerson underscored this point again earlier today. This signals that Trump still reserves the right to chart a dramatic departure from the status quo, and very well may do just that if Iran gives him solid cause. For now, this is a 'wait and see' development -- and a wise one, in light of the various complicating factors in the mix.
Parting thought: By far the worst dynamic of Obama's deal is that by simply waiting around for a little more than a decade, Iran gets virtually everything that it wants. The West theoretically gets to hit the snooze button for a few years, but then what? Everyone wakes up and Iran is almost immediately a threshold nuclear-armed state, a reality that Obama himself has acknowledged. That represented a breathtaking departure from his campaign promises. One could easily make the argument that Iran has every reason to eschew its long history of nuclear cheating and subterfuge for the next ten-to-fifteen years. Keeping their nose clean, even while probing to see how much they can get away with on other fronts, is squarely in their national interest. For now. But are they actually behaving themselves? German intelligence cast serious doubt on that question just last year (to which the Obama administration responded with...nothing), and the Weekly Standard quotes a top nuclear expert who assesses that Iran's nuclear behavior is "not consistent" with developing a purely civilian program:
"The program from a civilian point of view is just a colossal waste of money," David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, told TWS. "Unless of course the ultimate goal is nuclear weapons. Then the amount of money does not matter." ... The Iranians may be making progress on centrifuges beyond what's allowed under the nuclear deal, in part through a so-called "quality assurance" loophole that Iran is exploiting to test centrifuges, Albright said. "You have this undercurrent where Iran is either violating the deal, it's inconsistent with the deal, or it's just pushing the envelope," he said.Yes, astoundingly, Obama's accord explicitly allowed Tehran to continue research and development activities on highly advanced centrifuges over the course of its duration. The piece excerpted above also quotes Iranian officials boasting about how much progress their program is making. President Obama initially stated that his administration was committed to dismantling Iran's illicit program. He ended up enshrining it; hitting a "pause" button looks like the best case scenario. But we've seen how Iran manages to operate even while its activities are ostensibly "frozen." Trump shouldn't be attacked for not overturning the entire apple cart straight away, but holding Iran to account must remain a top priority for his nascent administration.