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Trump’s confusing attempt to torpedo the Iran deal, explained

He’s about to punt the issue to Congress — and make US allies very anxious.

Trump is about to put the fate of the Iran deal in Congress’s hands.
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President Donald Trump is expected to announce next week that he will “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that the agreement is not in the national security interest of the US.

That doesn’t mean the deal will immediately collapse. Instead, the future fate of the landmark pact will essentially be punted to Congress, triggering a 60-day review process. Lawmakers will need to decide whether to reimpose the crippling sanctions on Iran that were suspended in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear activities in a deal struck in 2015.

If Congress decides to put sanctions back in place, that will effectively kill the US’s participation in the Iran deal. The big question will be how the other countries that signed the deal — the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia — react to the American withdrawal from the pact.

The early signs are that the Trump administration would be left isolated on the world stage. The other nations say the deal is working — as does the UN watchdog tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance — and that they are not interested in pulling out of it and rejoining the US in slapping on new sanctions.

When news of Trump’s plan to decertify the deal broke yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters, “It is very important to preserve it in its current form and of course the participation of the United States will be a very significant factor in this regard.”

President Donald Trump may believe he can use his self-professed skills as a dealmaker to negotiate better terms. For now, though, there’s no reason to think he’s right.

There are lots of signs that the US is moving into risky territory

During an event at the Atlantic Council in September, David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the US, said that Europe could in fact reciprocate US sanctions on European companies for doing business with Iran.

“I’ve no doubt that if this scenario materializes, the European Union will act to protect the legitimate interests of our companies,” he said.

And of course Iran could argue that it’s no longer bound by the terms of the agreement. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in September that walking away from the deal is an “option” if the US withdraws. Such a move by Tehran would allow Iran to ramp up its nuclear program all over again — this time largely free of economic sanctions from any country but the US.

Analysts say new US sanctions would have far less bite since Washington would be imposing them on its own. The White House could also alienate key allies by pulling out of a deal those countries believe is working.

“We’re talking about a major rift in the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security and former senior Pentagon official. “Some countries and some companies will walk away from Iran because of fear of losing the US market; others will call the US’s bluff and challenge us. What you’ll end up with is a leaky, messy sanctions regime.”

Whether Congress will choose to reimpose sanctions is an open question.

Republicans only need a 51-vote majority in order to slap them back on Iran, but enough GOP lawmakers have said they’re uncertain about what to do with Iran that sanctions may be difficult or impossible to pass.

Iran deal experts say there are other possible scenarios. Republicans could simply use this as an opportunity to complain about Iran publicly without taking any action on sanctions, since withdrawing from the deal could cause international chaos and become a political liability for the lawmakers who set it off. Or they could devise new sanctions legislation from scratch technically designed to penalize Iran for activities that aren’t related to its nuclear activities, like its backing of terrorist networks in the region.

In any case, the Iran deal’s fate truly appears up in the air in a way it hasn’t been since it was originally struck in 2015.

Trump could’ve taken action against Iran on his own. He didn’t.

As Goldenberg explained to me, Trump had an option to withdraw from the Iran deal without getting Congress involved — and chose not to take it.

Every 120 days, the administration issues waivers to keep old sanctions from being imposed that would violate the terms of the Iran deal. Trump could simply have refrained from issuing that waiver the next time the renewal date came around — the next one is in January — and the US would simply be out of the Iran deal.

Instead, he chose to use a different process to deal a blow to the Iran pact. Under US law, the Trump administration has to certify that Iran is complying with the deal, and that it’s in the US’s national security interest to remain in it, every 90 days. Trump is expected to decline to certify on the national security interest grounds, which kicks the ball to Congress.

We got a sense of what his public argument next week might look like when he spoke to military officials at the White House Thursday night.

“The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed, and chaos across the Middle East,” he said. “That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions. They have not lived up to the spirit of their agreement.”

But the fact that Congress will take up the question of whether to penalize Iran for Trump’s grievances is a calculated political maneuver. It forces them to take on the responsibility for potentially blowing up arguably the most important foreign policy achievement of the Obama era.

“This was for him sort of like a cop-out, the middle ground that tries to deflect responsibilities from the executive that are really designed to be with the executive,” Goldenberg said.

It’s far from clear what course of action Republicans in Congress will take.

As the Washington Post reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not eager to add even more to the legislative calendar as his party struggles to pass a single major piece of legislation in 2017.

And Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (AZ), John McCain (AZ), and Susan Collins (ME) have all expressed uncertainty about how they would vote on sanctions. During a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (AR) — a big Iran hawk — said he would not push to immediately reimpose sanctions.

Sarah Yerkes, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that many Republican critics of Iran deal may have opposed its formation but are more reluctant to take it down now that it’s in place.

“I think we have enough moderate voices in Congress — who are not afraid to stand up to Trump — who will prevent new sanctions from being imposed,” she told me.

The US’s sanctions could backfire in a big way

Trump’s decision will create a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about the Iran deal around the world. While political and foreign policy wonks will understand that Trump isn’t necessarily going to end the deal by sending the issue to Congress, broadly speaking it will be read by the American public and the international community as him trying to deliver on his promise to scrap or improve the pact.

But if Congress does end up reimposing sanctions and ending the deal, that’s when the going could get very rough. American allies would have to choose between doing business with Iran or with the US.

Iran has begun to reintegrate itself into the global economy in the past year, and it has developed meaningful business ties with big companies that are based in the countries that struck the Iran deal. For example, this summer Iran signed a $5 billion agreement with France’s Total SA and China’s state-run China National Petroleum Corporation to develop its South Pars natural gas field.

At the Atlantic Council event last month, German Ambassador to the US Peter Wittig complained about how European companies have suffered in the past from previous limitations on their ability trade with Iran.

"German companies have suffered billions and billions and billions of dollars,” he said. He also argued that trade with Iran was a way to offer it an incentive to keep its hands off of nuclear weapons.

“We want Iran to gradually move to our values, to our worldview, and trade is an instrument,” he said.

The British Embassy is even trying to use Twitter to convince Trump of the deal’s merits.

The Europeans are thinking of creative ways to protect themselves from US sanctions should they start up again. One unnamed Western diplomat told the Washington Post that Europeans are looking into 1990s-era regulations designed to shield European companies and individuals from sanctions that would punish them from doing business with Iran.

Without Europe totally on board, the sanctions simply won’t be as effective.

Ultimately, there’s a great deal that could go wrong if the US ends up reimposing the old sanctions against Iran, or trying new ones.