Why you should care
Because America needs to stay the course or lose all credibility.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
President Donald Trump has threatened to decertify the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but whether the White House will really take a more confrontational approach toward Tehran remains to be seen. The deadline for a decision is October 15, but amid the uncertainty, we turned to OZY senior columnist and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin for insight on the latest twists and turns.
What does it mean for a president to decertify such an agreement?
John McLaughlin: Basically, Trump would be passing the buck to Congress. The law requires him every 90 days to certify that Iran is in compliance with the basic provisions of the deal. Most indications are that Iran is in compliance, but Trump criticized the deal during his campaign and said he would kill it. Now, much like his promise to repeal Obamacare, he’s finding it’s more complicated. So this is a way for him to have it both ways: appear to be against the deal but lob the real decision to Congress about whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. That’s the next decision to come if the president decertifies the deal. And if Congress does that? That would effectively kill the deal, giving Iran an excuse to resume nuclear work at the previous level and dealing another body blow to America’s international reputation.
What would Congress do?
McLaughlin: Again like the Obamacare fiasco — recall Trump saying “Who knew health care was so complicated?” — Republicans have talked big about dumping the agreement. But faced with the reality, they would find themselves in a dilemma. Many have come to realize that the agreement at least froze the Iranian nuclear program and bought time for the U.S. Still, there is no certainty that view would prevail; tossing it to Congress would introduce an element of unpredictability with no assurance that the majority won’t scotch the agreement.
What exactly does this nuke deal entail?
McLaughlin: Under the agreement, Iran — in return for getting economic sanctions lifted — gave up 98 percent of its enriched uranium, agreed to enrich uranium at no level higher than 3.67 percent (weapons grade needs about 90 percent), gave up most of the centrifuges needed for enrichment, neutralized a reactor useful for plutonium production and shut down its major underground nuclear facility. It is permitted to enrich uranium for peaceful use and do some research on less sophisticated equipment. It also agreed to monitoring of this by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which says Iran is in compliance with these provisions.
We will be big losers if [decertification] comes to pass.
Doesn’t the deal allow Iran to restart its program after a few years?
McLaughlin: It’s complicated. There are so-called “sunset” clauses. For example, after 2025, Iran can restart research on advanced centrifuges. But its enrichment capability will not change until 2028, and until 2030 its level of enrichment is restricted to 3.67 percent (peaceful use). Most estimates are that if Iran follows all the provisions, it would not have enough enriched material for a weapon until about 2030. But there are other limitations that will give the international community advanced warning — monitoring of centrifuge production sites goes on until 2035 and for uranium acquisition until 2040.
So why is it so controversial?
McLaughlin: I think it’s because it’s a compromise — something we no longer do very well in our country. We did not get everything we wanted, and nor did Iran. Iran would have preferred to keep more equipment, more uranium and higher enrichment levels. For the Trump administration, the main grievance is that Obama confined the deal strictly to the nuclear realm. It does not constrain Iran’s behavior on broader regional issues or actions we see as terrorism — although the deal’s preface includes a hope, well short of a commitment, that it will contribute to “regional and international peace and security” … which it has not. If the president decertifies and cites a reason, it will probably be some variation of this. Or he could cite Iran’s violations of U.N.-imposed missile limits that are unrelated to and separate from the Iran nuclear agreement
How would Iran and other parties to the agreement react?
McLaughlin: Tehran could take even a decertification as an excuse to walk away from the agreement, although it is more likely to stay in and seek support from the other parties who continue to support it — the United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, Germany and the European Union leadership. But if Congress reimposes sanctions, Iran will consider the agreement broken and feel free to resume its nuclear work even if the other parties did not follow America’s lead.
What do we gain or lose from this?
McLaughlin: We will be big losers if this comes to pass. It would signal a number of things while giving Iran an excuse to break the agreement. First, most of the president’s advisers — especially the secretary of defense and secretary of state — do not want to go this route, even though they know the agreement is not perfect. So international leaders would be confirmed in their belief that sensible pronouncements from Trump’s advisers carry little weight with him. Second, it would make any negotiations with North Korea much more difficult by raising questions about U.S. fidelity to agreements — already severely damaged by U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Third, it would put America severely at odds with key allies in Europe and hand Russia and China a great propaganda tool. Finally, it would forfeit whatever chance, however slim, of encouraging gradual moderation in Iran through broader engagement with the outside world. More pragmatic forces, such as President Hassan Rouhani and his faction, would be attacked by hardliners who would claim they were right all along not to trust the “Great Satan.”
In short, it would be a bad move all around for the United States.