US President Donald Trump has refused to certify Iran’s compliance with a landmark 2015 deal curtailing Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Trump – who opposed the agreement between Iran and world powers, including the US, from the outset – on Friday said that Iran was not living up to the spirit of the accord, despite the UN nuclear watchdog repeatedly confirming that the country was complying with its obligations.
“As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into,” Trump said during a speech from the White House.
“What is the purpose of a deal that, at best, only delays Iran’s nuclear capability for a short period of time? This, as president of the US, is unacceptable.”
Trump’s move does not immediately pull the US out of the deal, but pushes action to US Congress.
Legislators now have a non-binding 60-day period to debate the accord and decide whether to re-impose sanctions, which would put the deal at risk.
Trump said that if “we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated”, adding that the US will impose tough sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s main military force.
Under 2015’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also signed by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union, Tehran agreed to restrict its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of most international sanctions that had crippled its economy.
But in the US, opponents of the deal passed legislation requiring the country’s president to certify every 90 days that Iran is upholding its part of the agreement.
Trump had already recertified the deal twice since his inauguration in January. But his move on Friday means that Congress can now restore sanctions withdrawn under the 2015 agreement, or introduce new ones within 60 days of the current certification expiring.
The threat of new sanctions has drawn criticism from Iran, which has warned to withdraw partially or completely from the deal if new penalising measures were imposed.
Iranian officials say the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency is the only authority for verifying Iran’s compliance.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, Tehran said it would retaliate against any action targeting its armed forces, including the Revolutionary Guards.
“The Iranian government has been very clear that it will not tolerate any change to the nuclear agreement,” Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi, reporting from Tehran, said.
“They will not tolerate any sanctions or targeting of its Revolutionary Guard,” he added.
US allies, such as the UK and France, had also urged Washington to not jeopardise the deal, with analysts warning Trump’s actions could affect his country’s standing abroad.
“[Decertifying] would isolate the US from its transatlantic partners,” said Matthew Moran, a reader in International Security at King’s College London.
“Unilateral action to undermine a multilateral agreement would be very poorly received,” he added, continuing: “It would undermine US credibility and discourage other countries from trusting in agreements negotiated with US.”
Congress to decide
By withdrawing his endorsement, Trump has also shifted the responsibility for the consequences that stem from the potential sanctions on to Congress, according to analysts.
“Congress passed the buck on this in 2015 and now Trump is trying to pass it back,” said Steven Hurst, a US foreign policy analyst and academic.
“If … Congress reimposes sanctions, they take full ownership of the policy and what happens as a result of it. They really won’t want to do that, as they didn’t in 2015,” added Hurst, of Manchester Metropolitan University.
He argued that posturing to voters rather than genuine fears that Iran is contravening its obligations under the deal were influencing the Republican president’s behaviour, as well that of many of the party’s lawmakers.
“Certifying that Iran is in compliance goes down terribly with his core voters and Trump clearly craves their approval,” said Hurst.
Congress normally likes to posture on foreign policy issues that resonate with American voters but they rarely actually take responsibility for them by taking concrete actions that might leave them owning the problem
Steven Hurst, Lecturer in American Foreign Policy, Manchester Metropolitan University
Hurst pointed to the example of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 to support the idea that most lawmakers were against rejecting JCPOA.
The law required a two-thirds majority to reject the deal instead of simple majority approval as is normal procedure for such agreements. This “more or less guaranteed that the JCPOA would not be rejected” because such a motion would struggle to draw enough support, Hurst said.
“In essence, Congress normally likes to posture on foreign policy issues that resonate with American voters but they rarely actually take responsibility for them by taking concrete actions that might leave them owning the problem,” he said.
Even if the sincerity of Republican opponents to the Iran deal were not in question, Hurst argued that there would likely be enough open opposition in the party to scupper any attempts to sink the agreement.
The Republicans control 240 of 435 seats in the House of Representatives but carry a slender majority of just four in the Senate where they have 52 of 100 seats.
“In the first place, it isn’t clear that there will be a majority to support new sanctions, particularly in the Senate,” Hurst said, adding that “Trump has done a pretty good job of alienating important members of his own party, notably Senator Bob Corker, one of the key players in the congressional negotiations in 2015”.
Hurst said “it’s hard to see Corker voting to reimpose sanctions and he’s unlikely to be on his own”.
Sanctions not related to Iran’s nuclear programme remain unaffected by Trump’s decision.
As recently as last July, the US imposed sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals and entities for supporting what it said was “transnational criminal activity”.