Will President Trump end the Iran deal?

What's going on with the Iran nuclear deal?

The 2015 agreement between Iran, the United States and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union is in trouble. On the campaign trail, President Trump promised repeatedly to rip up the deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and is likely to "decertify" it in the days ahead. Does that pull the U.S. out of the deal?

It does not. Under a law passed by the Senate in 2015, the president must certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which is aimed at curbing that country's nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, every 90 to 120 days. The next deadline is on Oct. 15, and after grudgingly saying that Iran is in compliance with the deal twice since taking office, Mr. Trump has signaled that he's done signing off on it.

In practice, decertification throws the issue to Congress, which will have 90 days to figure out if new sanctions should be passed. The administration hopes this will give it time to come up with a supplemental agreement that would "fix" problems with the current deal. The hope is that, by threatening sanctions, other parties to the deal such as France, Russia, and China will be open to allowing a new round of negotiations.

Mr. Trump last month said he had "decided" what to do on the Iran deal, although he wouldn't say what his decision was. Even his own secretary of State, Rex Tillerson — who has been under fire lately for reportedly calling the president a "moron" — said he was unaware of the president's next move. 

Why has Trump been so dead-set against the Iran deal?

Mr. Trump has called the Iran deal perhaps the worst deal the U.S. has ever made. To him, it represents yet another piece of bad Obama-era policy. As was the case with the Paris climate agreement, the president is under pressure to back out of a deal he criticized so relentlessly. Mr. Trump spent a chunk of his speech at his first-ever UNGA meeting attacking the Iran regime, and given all his criticism of the deal this far, it would be difficult politically for him to do nothing about it now. Mr. Trump sees the deal as something that gives Iran too much leeway, for too little guarantee against a nuclear stockpile in return. 

What are these problems with the Iran deal?

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, laid out his criticisms of the original deal in a Council on Foreign Relations speech last week. The first issue is the "sunset provisions" that steadily allow the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to expire. When those provisions expire, he fears Iran will be stronger than ever. Cotton argued that, "by 2030 at the latest, Iran will be able, while fully complying with this deal, to reach nuclear breakout in a matter of weeks." Cotton wants more limits on Iran's ability to research and develop centrifuges, more restrictions on Iran's robust ballistic missile programs, and to allow for more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Critics of the Iran deal, including U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, believe these issues can be addressed after the deal is decertified.

If Iran doesn't play along, what does Cotton propose?

A solution Cotton has proposed entails so-called "surgical" military air strikes that don't escalate into full-scale war but deal a critical blow to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Cotton says the U.S. has the ability to take out Iran's entire nuclear program, and shouldn't be afraid to take military action, if necessary. 

What's the argument against decertification?

Some proponents of keeping the deal intact say decertification essentially gives Congress a gun in the hopes that they don't pull the trigger. Should Congress pass new sanctions, that's the end of the deal. And if the deal ends, Iran will be in a much stronger position to restart its nuclear weapons program. 

Why is that?

The deal resulted in a multi-billion dollar windfall for Iran as international sanctions were lifted. So now it has all that money, and assuming the rest of the signatories don't leave the deal with us, Iran would only be dealing with unilateral American sanctions as opposed to the robust international sanctions regime they faced before 2015. Also, we wouldn't be able to keep tabs on the Iranian nuclear program through the IAEA. 

What's the argument for decertification?

That the original deal is hopelessly flawed and should be either fixed or thrown out entirely. Critics of JCPOA note that the IAEA has had trouble carrying out inspections and that the Iranian ballistic missile program is gaining strength.

Iran has also funneled money, arms, and training to Hezbollah, the terror group that's been fighting for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and seeks the destruction of Israel. Plus, the deal will expire eventually regardless of whether we keep it in place or not. And when it does, the Iran might be much stronger than it is today.

Could Trump change his mind on decertification?

The president says he has "decided," but yes, he could reconsider before the Oct. 15 deadline.

Where's the Cabinet in all this?

Haley has been a big proponent of decertification. However, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress recently it was in the best interests of the U.S. to stay in the deal, and Tillerson and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford also say that keeping the deal intact is in our national security interests. That doesn't quite contradict Haley and the other hawks, as decertification doesn't take the U.S. out of the deal. However, it does set the stage for a potential unravelling of the deal, and  comments could complicate the administration's message on all this. 

Will Congress pass new sanctions if Mr. Trump decertifies the deal?

The White House will push them to hold off on any new sanctions. However, new sanctions against Iran have hardly been a tough sell in recent years, meaning Congress could potentially go it alone and blow up the deal despite Mr. Trump's efforts. After all, this would not be the first time the GOP-led Congress has decided to buck the president.

Why wouldn't they pass new sanctions?

Aside from the administration urging them not to, blowing up the deal will probably look less enticing to a number of erstwhile Iran hawks in Congress. Saying you want to get rid of a bad deal is one thing. Hurtling the U.S. onto a path to war with Iran is another.