On 13 October, President Donald Trump presented the new U.S. policy on Iran. These were not accompanied by a regular report on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 multi-nation nuclear deal with Iran, i.e. its “certification” to Congress. Trump instead de facto put this key element of American policy towards Iran into the hands of Congress.
According to legislation from 2015, every 90 days the U.S. president must present Congress reports certifying Iran’s compliance with JCPOA. This certification was presented by the previous administration under President Barack Obama and so far twice by the Trump administration. Now, though, it is choosing “decertification,” or not issuing the report, justified on the grounds that Iran’s policy is incompatible with the spirit of the JCPOA and that the deal harms many American interests. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and even the U.S. intelligence community have not concluded that Iran has broken the technical conditions of the JCPOA.
“Decertification” does not equal a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Under Obama, JCPOA was concluded not as an international treaty, which would have required ratification and/or termination by the U.S. Senate. The lack of certification is mainly a political gesture by Trump, showing that he might terminate the JCPOA at any time; however, he seems to want clear permission from Congress. On the one hand, this move fulfils an election campaign promise to terminate or renegotiate the JCPOA, and on the other hand, that requires the participation of Congress and its increased responsibility on this issue.
Trump’s “decertification” of the JCPOA presents Congress with the possibility to influence future American policy towards Iran through new legislation. Congress has 60 days to approve a bill containing the waived American sanctions and suspend the nuclear deal, which entered into force in 2016. Even with the well-known criticism of JCPOA by Republicans, which control the Congress, it is hard to predict the shape of the expected bill. It cannot be ruled out that Congress will not be interested in sharing responsibility for a U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and would set new conditions on the administration for certification. If the new bill does not re-apply the American sanctions, it would not break one of the JCPOA conditions. In this scenario, the political initiative would again be in Trump’s hands, with his administration forced to make a clear decision to terminate or to comply with the nuclear deal.
Iran will wait and see what happens with the U.S. position until late this year or early in 2018, when it should be less ambiguous. In the next two months, Iran might play up this issue internally (as proof of U.S. hostility) and diplomatically, emphasising the differences between Trump and the EU, Russia, and China. It should be expected that Tehran will have a lot of suggestions about the consequences of a U.S. abrogation of the JCPOA and the possibility it will return to uranium enrichment on the previous scale or limiting cooperation with the IAEA. These steps are only likely with the reintroduction of all the pre-2016 U.S. Congress and administration sanctions on Iran.
Trump’s “decertification” of the JCPOA is not the end of the nuclear deal but might be the beginning of a process towards this scenario. In this regard, the influence of the EU on the current U.S. administration and Congress seems limited. The uncertainty about the future of the JCPOA will deter potential investors from Iran. With the lack of economic benefits, Iran might also gradually reject the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear programme.