The Next Steps on Iran's Nukes

The president and Congress want to up the pressure on Tehran. Here's how to do it.
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Ready to deal?

Source: AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s decertification of the Iranian nuclear deal is a mistake. Yes, its supporters have exaggerated the agreement’s benefits — but on balance, the world is better off with it than without it.

In the near term, the decertification doesn’t really change much. The deal will remain in effect while Congress considers re-imposing sanctions on Iran, in effect killing the pact. There is little indication that lawmakers from either party are eager to quash the agreement immediately. Doing so would be foolish: The U.S. and its allies have already given up most of their required concessions, while Iran’s obligations won’t be fulfilled for years.

Indeed, not even Trump wants to tear up the deal right now, instead asking lawmakers to establish a list of Iranian actions, or “trigger points,” that could merit new sanctions down the line.

The question, then, is whether it is possible to use the uncertainty Trump has created over the pact’s future as leverage to improve it.

How would that work? First, the U.S. would try to get Iran back to the table by ramping up sanctions unrelated to the nuclear deal but based on Iran’s record of sponsoring terrorism, violating human rights and testing illegal ballistic missiles. This could include designating the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, which means any corporations or banks that do business with it would be subject to harsh U.S. penalties.

The U.S. could also add more punishments to Iranian airlines and other entities that funnel weapons and military advisers to Tehran’s proxy forces in the region. It could threaten to quash a deal by Boeing Co. to sell $20 billion worth of planes to Iran’s commercial airlines. And it could enact stronger sanctions against the Iran-funded terrorist group Hezbollah.

To get real concessions from Iran over its nuclear program, however, Washington will need the cooperation of the European nations that helped broker the deal. That will be difficult, since they all opposed the U.S. decertification. At the same time, they acknowledge that the deal is not perfect.

A stronger agreement isn’t hard to envision. It would include prolonging the 10- to 15-year period during which Iran is prevented from restarting various aspects of its nuclear program, reducing the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and ensuring that international inspectors truly have “anytime-anywhere authority.

Under the best-case scenario, Trump’s decertification will prod both Iran and the deal’s European partners to the negotiating table. If the agreement is working as well as they say, they will not want to lose it.

The risk is that, in response to Trump’s decision, Iran will declare the accord null and void and restart its nuclear program. And if Europe fails to comply with the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, they will be far less effective. Decertification may also keep U.S. companies out of legitimate business deals in Iran, leaving them free for European and other competitors.

It’s hard to argue that the pact doesn’t need improvements. The question is whether Trump’s decision to decertify it will help bring them about.

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