The Trump administration last week certified that Iran is complying with the international agreement placing limits on its nuclear program – but for a while it looked as if the certification wouldn't happen.
Administration officials had distributed talking points explaining the decision and scheduled a conference call for reporters. But then President Trump balked at signing off on the recommendation of key advisors, including Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and national Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.
Eventually Trump agreed to the certification, after being presented with a plan for tougher measures against Iran in other areas. The next day the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on 18 additional people and entities for supporting Iran's armed services and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a force commanded by Iran's Supreme Leader.
But this wasn't a case of all's well that ends well. Although Trump hasn't followed through with a campaign promise to dismantle the Iranian nuclear agreement, he clearly remains deeply suspicious of the deal, even though it has accomplished its purpose of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and even though Iran generally has complied with its terms. (There have been some violations; for example, Iran has at times exceeded limits on its heavy water stockpile. But in general the agreement has been a success.)
By law the president must declare every 90 days whether Iran has met four conditions related to the 2015 agreement it reached with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the European Union. The conditions are that Iran is implementing the agreement; that it is not in "material breach" of its terms; that it is not advancing its nuclear weapons program; and that sanctions relief is appropriate.
The Trump administration has repeatedly certified that Iran has satisfied these conditions, but the cliffhanger circumstances surrounding last week's certification leave doubt about the future. On Friday, Foreign Policy magazine ominously reported that Trump this week assigned White House staffers, rather than the State Department, to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal.
The uncertainty is bad for two reasons: It creates divisions with U.S. allies, which overwhelmingly support the nuclear agreement, and it could tempt Iran to abrogate the agreement. After all, the deal has already granted Iran much of the relief it sought from economic sanctions.
As a candidate Trump denounced the nuclear agreement as "the worst deal ever negotiated." As president, he has complained that Iran was "not living up to the spirit of the agreement." What he means by that isn't clear, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this week that "Iran's other malign activities are serving to undercut whatever positive contributions to regional and international peace and security were intended to emerge" from the nuclear deal.
It's true that some — including, perhaps, President Obama — hoped that the agreement would mark the beginning of Iran's rapprochement with the West. That clearly hasn't happened. But the agreement itself was never conditioned on Iran's good behavior in other areas. And the country's "malign activities" — whether they be testing ballistic missiles or supporting groups like Hezbollah — aren't prohibited by the nuclear pact. They can, however, be addressed separately. Last month the Senate approved legislation that would increase sanctions against Iran for recent ballistic missile tests. (The same legislation contains sanctions against Russia, which has slowed its progress through the House.)
It's time for Trump to stop playing games with U.S. support for the nuclear agreement. So long as Iran complies with the terms, the U.S. should live up to its obligations.