President Trump on Friday announced steps to weaken the nuclear deal with Iran, which could potentially unravel one of the most important anti-proliferation agreements of the century.
Trump declared that the agreement the Obama administration and five other world powers reached with Iran in 2015 to suspend its nuclear program is not sufficiently strong to benefit "U.S. national security interests." Iran should no longer be seen as in compliance with the accord, Trump said. Twice before, under a law requiring the president's certification every 90 days, Trump had declared that Iran was in compliance.
Trump on Friday called on Congress to consider reimposing sanctions if Iran crosses certain lines, such as firing ballistic missiles or financing terrorism. He also moved to impose new sanctions by executive action, including blacklisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite military unit that is heavily involved in much of the country's business and trade.
"We cannot and will not make this certification," Trump said in a speech from the White House ahead of the next deadline for certification on Sunday.
His judgment is shared by a number of conservative organizations and members of Congress. Many others, including several of his top Cabinet officials, most European diplomats and the United Nations, disagree with him and say the deal is working.
What impact does a refusal to certify have?
Refusing to certify is not the same as withdrawing completely from the deal. It would not automatically reimpose economic sanctions on Iran. That is because the requirement to certify Iran's compliance with the deal every 90 days is written into U.S. law and is not part of the international agreement.
With two tracks, Trump can do both: continue to attack the deal without officially voiding it.
The refusal to certify kicks the issue to Congress, opening a 60-day period for debate. The official deadline for certification is Oct. 15.
What would Congress do?
When the deal was being negotiated, a majority in Congress opposed it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented appearance before a joint meeting of Congress to denounce the deal and what he described as the dangers posed by Iran, going around the White House to oppose one of President Obama's top priorities.
Nonetheless, Congress allowed the deal to take effect, approving a compromise that included the certification requirement.
Today, opinion is more divided. Even among some lawmakers who have criticized the deal in the past, such as Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, there is a feeling that sticking with it, however flawed, is far better than blowing it up. The deal at least sustains control over Iran's nuclear ambitions, they argue, at a time when tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea are at a fever pitch.
Some say the refusal to certify (often incorrectly described as "decertification") would be the first step in strengthening the agreement and putting greater controls on Tehran.
What did the Iran deal do?
In exchange for getting rid of most of its centrifuges, disabling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak and agreeing to regular inspections, Iran received considerable sanctions relief: readmittance to the international banking system, permission to trade on the oil market and the unfreezing of billions of dollars in overseas assets.
How do we know the deal is working?
We don't, not with total certainty.
However, the U.N. watchdog agency charged with monitoring Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has repeatedly said the country is complying with the technical aspects of the deal. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano reiterated that assessment again this week.
Most parties to the deal — Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, as well as the European Union — accept that judgment.
Why does the Trump administration say Iran is in violation?
Regardless of its technical compliance with the terms of the agreement, few would disagree that Iran is guilty of other behavior in the region that the U.S. labels as destabilizing, including the testing of ballistic missiles and support for militant groups in several countries.
Those sorts of acts, which don't involve nuclear development, were not covered by the agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has supported sticking with the deal, has said he believes Tehran violates its "spirit" by continuing to promote destabilizing actions in the region.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., goes further than Tillerson. She has said she believes Iran has continued to secretly move ahead with efforts to develop nuclear capability. She contends that numerous Iranian military sites are off-limits to U.N. inspections.
Some Obama-era officials had hoped the nuclear deal would give a boost to so-called pragmatists in Tehran over more hard-line factions. President Hassan Rouhani, who supported the agreement, won easy reelection in May.
But the rhetoric from the Trump administration seems to have unified Iran's factions, and there has been no discernible decrease in Iranian support for armed militants in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
What do U.S. allies say?
European diplomats in Washington and here at the United Nations in New York have been lobbying the administration vigorously to try to save the agreement, warning that U.S. credibility and trustworthiness are also at stake.
Going back on the deal with Iran would discourage other countries, like North Korea, from trusting any agreement the U.S. might negotiate, some allies warn.
On Tuesday, a representative of British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement that she had called Trump and "reaffirmed the U.K.'s strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners, saying it was vitally important for regional security."
How is Iran expected to react to the sanctions Trump announced?
Reinstating sanctions is likely to anger Iran and perhaps cause Tehran to quit the deal.
"Over the long term, I think the Trump administration would not mind if it could goad Iran into violating terms of the deal," Jon Wolfsthal, a senior nonproliferation official in the Obama administration, said in a recent forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
The U.S. is likely to lose much of its leverage with Iran if it snaps the sanctions back in place.
Doing so also might be an unnecessary provocation. Washington can impose sanctions on Iran without using those associated with the nuclear program. For example, in July, Congress approved new economic sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and on Russia, which made Trump reluctant to sign the bill).
"I'm very concerned they will let it die by a thousand cuts," Wolfsthal said.
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Oct. 13, 11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with President Trump announcing he would not certify Iran's compliance.
1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from a representative of British Prime Minister Theresa May.
12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.