On Iran, Trump is wrong

By Daniel DePetris

When President Trump outlined his Iran policy several weeks ago and explained to the American people how he would handle the Iran nuclear deal, supporters of the agreement breathed a small sigh of relief. While Trump decried the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he went with the recommendation of his national security team to keep the United States in the deal.

This decision, however, was bitter sweet. The administration wants a far better accord with far better terms for the United States, and Trump is working with Senate Republicans to convert his dreams of a perfect agreement into reality. According to the Associated Press, Corker and Cotton are preparing to introduce a bill that would not only unilaterally change the JCPOA without the consent or consultation of the other parties, but also change the deal in such a way that it would add new restrictions on Iranian behavior in areas that were never part of the original deal in the first place. The bill would automatically reinstate U.S. sanctions on Tehran if the country continues to test, manufacture or deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles—a valid concern to the West but a program Iranian officials have made clear is outside the nuclear file. And it would make permanent provisions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and centrifuge programs that are set to sunset after 10 to 15 years.

Washington, in short, is trying to rewrite a multilateral agreement that took three years and dozens of rounds of diplomacy to negotiate.

There is a way for Congress to buttress U.S. diplomacy and improve U.S. policy on Iran without doing unraveling a deal the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies is working. But it will have to involve tradeoffs on the nuclear file in order to keep Washington and its European allies together.

As it’s reportedly drafted, the legislation lawmakers are working on would split a P5+1 bloc—list countries here—whose unity during the negotiations helped convince the Iranians that they needed to compromise.

The fact that no party in the P5+1 coalition is supportive of these moves has not deterred the Trump administration from pressing ahead. The administration either doesn’t care about maintaining a unified negotiating stance with its partners; strongly believes it can use the power of the U.S. financial system to coerce the Europeans and the Iranians into adopting new terms; or is hoping that demanding more concessions from the Iranians would rise their anger to such a point that Tehran would violate the accord on its own.

Rather than a strategy to improve the deal’s survivability, it is a clever way to cut it open and let it bleed out on the operating table.

We know the Europeans are not open to unilateral American amendments to the JCPOA because they have told U.S. officials repeatedly that they will not re-negotiate a package that is working—despite some hiccups—as it was intended to work. If the White House had any doubts, the U.K., France, and Germany put them to rest hours after Trump’s speech when they released a joint statement expressing their commitment to the JCPOA as is. And if the White House still thought they could bring the Europeans around to a more hardline position, the EU scotched that lingering hope last week after it adopted a statement encouraging “the US to maintain its commitment to the JCPOA and to consider the implications for the security of the US, its partners and the region before taking further steps.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. If Congress plays this the right way and reinforces—rather than undermines—America’s position relative to what Iran is doing, we can keep together a broad coalition to address the challenges Iran poses to U.S. interests.

It can continue on its current course and amend the Iran nuclear deal through U.S. legislation—a tact that is more likely to introduce a rift among Washington and its P5+1 partners to the benefit of Iran.

Or it can accept the JCPOA as it exists, acknowledge that this is the best agreement the international community is ever going to get, and begin initiating discussions with Europe, Russia, and China as soon as possible on what a supplemental agreement or an extension would look like.

The latter may not be what President Trump, his advisers, or many lawmakers in Washington would prefer. But it is the best strategy with the least risk to America’s credibility as a diplomatic superpower and the only way for the U.S. to keep its commitments, conserve the high ground, and bring its allies along with it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow with Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on November 2, 2017. Read more HERE.