On Saturday, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster gave a lengthy interview in which he clearly stated what he takes to be President Donald Trump’s own position on Iran, adding that he feels a duty to give critical advice as necessary. A clear message from the piece is that his disagreements on policy are meant to be constructive, but that he will execute the President’s policy once final decisions have been made. As long as the President’s team can pull together once a final decision is made, disagreement between experienced hands is healthy and appropriate. We should work against efforts to sow distrust among Americans, and also among the members of the administration.
McMaster’s background provides a helpful compliment to the President’s business experience on military decisions. In addition to McMaster’s work at Tal Afar, which along with a similar mission in Ramadi served as a testing ground for the new strategy that won the Surge in Iraq, McMaster commanded and won the last great tank battle in American history. He holds a Ph.D. in American history, and wrote a well-reviewed book highly critical of an earlier generation of military commanders while himself a serving officer. You’ll travel a long time before you meet another man who has so distinguished himself in both deeds at war and in thought. A debate with him is welcome.
SSG has a clear position against Iran, one that we have arrived at through a similar process of internal discussion and debate. To us it sounds as if McMaster wants to contest Iran more in terms of the regional conflicts, and less in terms of the nuclear deal itself. McMaster says that the 90 day window is going to be filled with a careful review process of Iranian compliance with the deal that they are not pre-judging.
The certification issue is of less importance than it might appear. ‘The Iran deal’ has several parts. The first part is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is a diplomatic agreement negotiated by the United States, Iran, and several other nations (including Russia). This agreement was signed by President Obama, but not ratified by the Senate (where the final vote on it was filibustered by Senate Democrats). Certification is not part of the JCPOA at all.
The second part is the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) implementing the JCPOA, UNSCR 2231. This was imposed by the Security Council on Iran and the United States, with the Obama administration voting in favor of the imposition (as did the Russians). Certification also has nothing to do with UNSCR 2231.
The third part is the Corker-Cardin law, which is completely internal to the United States. This is where the disputed certification process comes from. If the Trump administration does not re-certify Iran’s compliance, that does not withdraw us from the JCPOA. It also does not get rid of the UNSCR. It does not even void the Corker-Cardin law. All that happens if the Trump administration does not recertify Iran’s compliance is that the US Congress is empowered to move rapidly to enact new sanctions on Iran.
Congress might not elect to move on those sanctions even if it is empowered to do so. Whether Congress does or does not, the major parts of ‘the Iran deal’ would remain in place if the only action taken was decertification of Iranian compliance. The problems with the deal, which McMaster quotes the President as saying is “the worst deal,” will not be fixed by decertification alone.
One area of agreement between SSG and McMaster is that we both support a much wider field of challenges against Iran’s use of tyranny and terror as tools of state power. Our major disagreement is that we regard decertification as far too weak a move by itself. What is really needed is a comprehensive strategy on Iran, as part of a grand strategy targeting the authoritarian states that are supporting and advancing Iran’s interests. The debate on that cannot come soon enough.