For the second time since taking office, President Trump has recertified that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, giving the regime in Tehran another 90 days of sanctions relief. The decision comes days after the deal’s second anniversary.
To the White House’s credit, no one there is a fan of President Obama’s bargain with Iran. The ongoing internal debate is over how best to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, given the existence of the deal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are in favor of keeping the deal in place and using it as leverage, at least for the time being, while Trump adviser Steve Bannon and CIA director Mike Pompeo favor a complete withdrawal from the agreement. The president seems to have sided with the former, primarily to give the administration more time for an ongoing interagency review.
At this point, though, is there much to review? When the administration recertified the deal for the first time in April, President Trump said that Iran was “not living up to the spirit” of the agreement, a line that administration officials have resurrected for this latest go-round. And, indeed, there’s something to the distinction: The “letter” of the deal was written narrowly by the Obama administration to make it as easy as possible for Iran to comply, and the main concerns were shunted into secret side deals hidden from Congress. Yet Iran is nonetheless in outright violation of the text, and unquestionably so. As Republican senators Tom Cotton (Ark.), David Perdue (Ga.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.) outlined in a letter to Tillerson last week, Iran is operating a larger number of advanced nuclear centrifuges than is allowed under the deal, it has exceeded its heavy-water cap, and it continues to refuse International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to its nuclear-research and military facilities — where, in all likelihood, they would find other violations in spades.
None of this should come as a surprise. The regime in Tehran never had any intention of keeping its word, and the Obama administration was merely seeking to postpone Iran’s nuclear capacity by a few years and claim the postponement as a wholesale victory. The mullahs knew this, of course, which is why, even while making a show of adhering to the deal’s terms, they continued full steam ahead with efforts to weaponize fissile material and develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles — not to mention funding terrorist groups abroad and lending support to the Assad regime in Syria (recently, Iranian troops there launched a series of direct attacks on American forces). All of this has been lavishly funded by money from sanctions relief, unfrozen assets, and $400 million surreptitiously delivered to Iran in January 2016 in exchange for five American hostages.
The Trump administration is, it seems, inclined to proceed cautiously. But by once again pushing this decision into the future, it has put itself in an awkward position: At the same time that officials are condemning Iranian violations of the agreement, the White House is — at least formally — declaring that sanctions relief is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.” Meanwhile, the administration is slapping new sanctions on 16 Iranian individuals and groups for, among other things, facilitating Iran’s ballistic-missile program.
This schizophrenic policy is ultimately unsustainable. Obama’s deal is a fatally flawed instrument with which to conduct any real, enforceable oversight of Iran’s nuclear activities. Better to declare an end to this diplomatic farce — and to the extraordinary largesse from which Iran is benefiting — and establish a robust sanctions regime that might actually force Tehran to change its ways. The Senate recently passed, nearly unanimously, a sanctions bill that the House should take up and strengthen and the president should sign. Additionally, the Treasury Department should nix Boeing’s arrangement with Iran for new commercial airplanes before the regime receives another $20 billion infusion.
The advances that Iran made in its nuclear program under the Obama administration will be extremely difficult — perhaps impossible — to roll back. But there is no reason why the Trump administration should bolster those gains by propping up a bad deal and perpetuate the fantasy that Iran is abiding, or ever intended to abide, by the terms of its agreement. Candidate Donald Trump declared that he would “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” That was a good plan then, and it still is.