Imagine a business deal among multiple parties. It is so complex that after years of negotiation the contract runs to 159 pages. Once agreed upon, the project proceeds without problems, but two years later one of the signers changes his mind. His lawyers rewrite some of the deal’s provisions, and he announces he’ll pull out unless the other parties accept the new terms.
That, in essence, is what Donald Trump announced on October 13 when he refused to certify to Congress that the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was working. Certification does not affect the deal itself. It is a purely domestic act. The president is required to do it every ninety days by the terms of the legislation with which Congress approved the JCPOA in 2015. Repeated certifications of this kind are commonly used in contentious situations, such as when sanctions are waived or arms are sold to a problematic buyer, to assure Congress that its conditions are still being met. It is difficult to imagine a president taking what should have been a routine official signature as a reminder of his predecessor’s achievement and therefore an intolerable personal insult. But that is what happened.
On the occasion of his second required certification last July, Trump exploded in anger at his aides for not providing him with an alternative course and made it clear that he didn’t intend to sign again—whether Iran had violated the deal or not. Since then his national security team has frantically sought to come up with a ploy that would satisfy the president without immediately pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal. They have tested various options in public settings and private conversations with European cosigners of the agreement. None was well received, to put it mildly.
At the same time, stunningly, the intelligence community and the leaders of the State Department, the Pentagon, the military, and the National Security Council all publicly attested that Iran is, in fact, meeting its commitments under the deal. Secretary of Defense James Mattis went further. At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he was pressed by Maine senator Angus King into a yes or no answer as to whether he believed that staying in the deal was in the United States’ national security interest, Mattis paused, swallowed, and finally choked out, “Yes, Senator, I do.”
Though the president’s refusal to certify has no direct international consequence, what he said on October 13 casts the deal’s future into grave doubt, has shifted the political ground in Tehran, and created new strains across the Atlantic. The speech was a hash of inflammatory rhetoric, gratuitous insults, false claims of Iranian violations, and a recital…
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