Report: Trump nearly killed the Iran deal

Eli Lake reports that President Trump came very close yesterday to not certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Eli writes:

On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was supposed to certify Iranian compliance again. Talking points were sent to columnists. Senior administration officials briefed analysts on a conference call. The Treasury Department was set to announce new sanctions against a number of Iranians to soften the blow for the Republican base. Allies in Congress were given a heads-up.

There was just one problem: Donald Trump. In meetings with his national security cabinet, the president has never been keen on Obama’s nuclear deal. What’s more, Iran’s regional behavior has only been getting worse since his inauguration.

So just as Tillerson was preparing to inform Congress on Monday that Iran remained in compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Trump called it off, according to administration officials. He wanted to know his options and what would happen if Tillerson didn’t make the announcement.

Suddenly, it appeared that the White House might well inform Congress it could not certify that Iran is complying. This would have triggered a 60-day period in which Congress could vote to re-impose the secondary sanctions lifted as a condition of the deal, or to strike the deal down altogether.

In the end, Trump provided certification. However, the administration followed up by imposing new sanctions on Iran for ongoing “malign activities” in non-nuclear areas such as ballistic missile development and support for terrorism.

Why did Trump certify Iranian compliance? Eli provides this explanation:

The predicament, according to administration officials, was that Congress (not to mention the other signatories to the seven-party agreement) was not prepared. Trump had yet to even put forward a broader Iran policy. What’s more, the U.S. intelligence community feels that Iran is pushing the edges, but overall is in compliance.

Whatever one thinks of these reasons — the claim of Iranian compliance is dubious, in my view — they suggest that the fight is not over. The next certification comes up in 90 days, by which time Congress should get itself prepared and Trump should get himself a broader Iran policy.

Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster oppose disturbing the deal. CIA Director Pompeo (a leading opponent of the deal when he was in Congress) and Steve Bannon would like to see us pull out.

President Trump’s instincts seem to be with Pompeo and Bannon. Inertia is on the side of Tillerson and McMaster.

It is not on the side of the deal, though. Eli explains that, even with continued certification, the deal might well fall apart over time. Similarly, Gary Samore of Harvard, who worked on arms control in the Obama administration and who doesn’t favor pulling out, has suggested that the deal will die through 1,000 cuts. (The new sanctions Trump just imposed on Iran can be viewed as another cut). Samore says he never believed the deal would hold for ten years anyway.

90 days from now seems like a good time to begin putting the deal out of its misery. It’s true, however, that the administration needs to develop a plan for dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat in the absence of the deal.