October 15 is the looming deadline for President Trump to certify to Congress whether Iran is not in material breach of the terms of the nuclear weapons deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – or whether it is engaged in activities that could advance its nuclear weapons program. These are the operative directions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, a U.S. law that is not part of JCPOA.
That is a significant distinction given the fact that international monitors have regularly reported that Iran is, in fact, complying with the terms of the agreement and President Trump, although he misses no opportunity to blast JCPOA as the worst deal ever for the United States, offers no evidence of non-compliance.
What he does point to, however, is the obvious reality that JCPOA makes Iranian military bases, where much pre-agreement nuclear development certainly took place at one time, off-limits to JCPOA inspectors. So it is impossible to know for sure whether development is going on there still. Thus, for Mr. Trump certifying compliance or non-compliance is problematical.
But compliance or non-compliance with the terms of JCPOA is only one of the issues the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the president to address. If Iran is acting in a manner that could advance its nuclear weapons program by means other than direct nuclear development, that must be reported to Congress as well. And the continuing open development of ballistic missiles by Iran would certainly qualify.
Should President Trump report to Congress that Iran is indirectly advancing its nuclear weapons program, lawmakers have the option of agreeing and restoring the multi-billion dollar sanctions regime on Iran that was waived as a condition of Iran’s agreeing to sign onto JCPOA.
It’s widely assumed in political and diplomatic circles that the president will not certify Iranian compliance, citing the Iranian military bases and Tehran’s ballistic missile development rather than any concrete evidence of material Iranian breaches of JCPOA provisions.
So even if there is no certification, the U.S. doesn’t automatically opt out of JCPOA, as The New York Times erroneously editorialized last week. Congress has to deal with the sanctions issue, which can take time, and the Iranians will have to decide whether to declare the U.S. in breach of JCPOA if the sanctions regime is reinstituted.
Unfortunately, while this all plays out, the real problem with JCPOA gets obscured. Once JCPOA lapses, Iran will be legally free to do whatever it wants to in the way of nuclear development – and the breakout time will undoubtedly be very quick. In the meantime, JCPOA assures Iran more than a decade of being left alone, despite its continuing role as the world’s greatest supporter of international terror. And when the ultimate confrontation takes place, it will be with a nuclear-armed rogue Iran.