President Donald Trump is expected to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal, claiming it is not in the national interest of the United States. Decertification would begin a 60-day congressional review period during which the administration may propose legislation to “strengthen” the agreement and Congress may decide to re-impose sanctions, according to The Washington Post this afternoon.
If Trump pursues this strategy he will be going against his own secretary of defense, James Mattis, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in the national security interest of the U.S.
He will also be going against the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford who told the committee in a written statement last month that “The briefings I have received indicate that Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.” He also warned the administration to abide by the agreement, saying, “It makes sense to me that our holding up agreements that we have signed, unless there’s a material breach, would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements.”
Indeed, the strategy of decertifying Iran’s compliance with the deal, even when there is no evidence emerging from the intelligence community or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iranian non-compliance, would also go against U.S. public opinion. Sixty-percent of Americans say that the U.S. should participate in the “agreement that lifts some international economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for strict limits on its nuclear program for at least the next decade,” according to polling data released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Tuesday.
And on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national adviser, Uzi Arad, urged the White House and Congress not to abandon the JCPOA.
But the White House strategy does have its backers in the most hawkish wings of the Republican Party and a small set of Trump’s biggest political donors.
The Post credits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) with this “fix it or nix it” approach to U.S. compliance with the JCPOA. Indeed, Cotton laid out essentially this very strategy in a speech on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he proposed that the president should decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal based on Iran’s actions in unrelated areas and toughen key components of the agreement, arguing that the deal fails to serve U.S. national security interests.
Despite the potential pitfalls of Cotton and Netanyahu’s plan, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley embraced the approach. Haley, a possible replacement for embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tweeted yesterday, “[Sen. Tom Cotton] has clear understanding of the Iranian regime & flaws in the nuclear deal. His [CFR] speech is worth reading.”
But Cotton has been clear that renegotiating the nuclear deal isn’t his actual intention. In 2015, he made no secret of his desire to blow up diplomacy with Iran, saying:
The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.”
Later that same year, Cotton explained his terms for any agreement with Iran, qualities that more closely resemble a surrender document than anything the Iranians would agree to in a negotiation. Cotton said:
Any agreement that advances our interests must by necessity compromise Iran’s—doubly so since they are a third-rate power, far from an equal to the United States. The ayatollahs shouldn’t be happy with any deal; they should’ve felt compelled to accept a deal of our choosing lest they face economic devastation and military destruction of their nuclear infrastructure. That Iran welcomes this agreement is both troubling and telling.
Indeed, Cotton and his fellow proponents of the president decertifying Iranian compliance, despite all indications that Iran is complying with the JCPOA, have a not-so-thinly-veiled goal of regime change in Tehran, a position in which the JCPOA and any negotiations with Iran pose a serious threat. Ben Armbruster, writing for LobeLog last week, detailed the ways in which Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, pushes for a so-called “better deal” while explicitly calling for regime change in Tehran.
But perhaps a bigger pressure on Trump to decertify comes from three of his biggest political donors: Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and Bernard Marcus. All three have funded groups that sought to thwart the negotiations leading to the JCPOA, including Dubowitz’s FDD, and have given generously to Trump.
“I think that Iran is the devil,” said Marcus in a 2015 Fox Business interview.
Adelson told a Yeshiva University audience in 2013 that U.S. negotiators should launch a nuclear weapon at Iran during as a negotiating tactic.
Adelson may hold radical views about the prudence of a nuclear attack on Iran, but he appears to enjoy easy access to Trump. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who were Trump’s biggest financial supporters by far during his presidential run, met with the president at Adelson’s headquarters in Las Vegas on Monday, ostensibly to discuss the recent mass shooting there. But Andy Abboud, senior vice president Government Relations for Adelson’s Sands Corporation, told the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review Journal that the meeting was “pre-arranged and set to discuss policy,” according to the paper. Adelson has also financed Israel’s largest circulation daily newspaper, whose support for Netanyahu and his right-wing government earned it the nickname “Bibiton.”