There are three options on Iran under discussion in D.C. policy circles that are not going to work out. Since they have some cachet right now among the smart people who are trying to adjust fire on Iran, it’s worth talking through why they aren’t viable options.
1) Stall a decision to decertify the Iran deal pending new inspections of Iran’s military sites.
You can understand why this might seem like a plausible option to offer the President. The recommendation would be for the President to use the threat of decertification to get Iran to knuckle under and accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, who might then uncover strong evidence on Iran’s intentions at their military sites. In return, the United States executive would continue to recertify Iranian compliance as long as such inspections were ongoing.
There are two problems with this approach. The smaller one is that the IAEA is not on the right side. It is not just that they have been blowing off American efforts to get them to inspect Iran’s military sites so far, though they have been. It is that they consider their mission more one of constraining the Trump administration here than one of constraining Iran from having a military nuclear program. They were quite open about this to Reuters just last week.
Iran has reiterated commitment to the terms of the deal despite Trump’s stance, but has also said its military sites are off limits, raising the risk of a stand-off if a request for access were put to a vote. That adds to the pressure to be clear on the grounds for an initial request.
“If [Trump administration officials] want to bring down the deal, they will,” the first IAEA official said, referring to the Trump administration. “We just don’t want to give them an excuse to.”
The bigger problem is that Iran would reject the IAEA’s demand to search the facilities even if it were made. Iran is even more open about the fact that the demand is unacceptable than the IAEA is about the fact that they aren’t inclined to make it. Iran has been completely consistent about this fact. One reason that they have is that their constitution requires them not to subject their military programs to any foreign controls.
This road therefore ultimately leads nowhere. It might still seem desirable to some in the State Department who would like to prolong the life of the deal. Officials who spent the last eight years of their lives working on this deal may feel that dissolving it means throwing out a significant part of their lives’ work.
Nevertheless, the deal was built around the hope that the United States would have partners in international agencies like the UN and the IAEA who would help restrain Iran. Instead, the IAEA has proven more inclined to be a partner with Iran in restraining the United States. The IAEA lacks the power or competence to force Iran to comply with their demands in any case. The Russians have shown that they will protect Iran from any larger international effort to move against them. The road of seeking new IAEA inspections is the forlorn hope of those who still want to believe, in spite of all the evidence, that the Obama-era project could work.
2) Renegotiate the Joint Coordinated Plan of Action (JCPOA)
This process would mean going to Europe and Iran and insisting on a new round of negotiations designed to amend sunset clauses, tests, and the like. Only some of the European powers favor this process; Russia is likely to oppose any changes hostile to Iran. At a minimum, the process would take years.
That aside, the largest obstacle to this is that Iran itself flatly refuses any such renegotiation. The head of their parliament’s relevant convention said no in July.
“Iran will under no conditions undertake negotiations again about the nuclear deal,” said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, on July 23. Boroujerdi added, “None of the other countries that negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran have accepted America’s recommendation to negotiate again.” He called Trump’s desire to renegotiate another “example of America cheating, which can be viewed as an illogical action.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, their Foreign Minister reiterated the point.
“It would be extremely dangerous to even contemplate reopening these negotiations, because now we all go into any possible negotiations with even higher expectations,” Zarif said, adding, “It was complicated enough to reach this deal already, and it would be impossible to reach another deal.”
Their deputy foreign minister said the same thing.
“There will be no renegotiation and the (agreement) will not be reopened,” said Araqchi, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator at the talks that led to the agreement in 2015, quoted by the state news agency IRNA.
“We and many analysts believe that the (agreement) is consolidated. The new U.S. administration will not be able to abandon it,” Araqchi told a news conference in Tehran, held a year after the deal took effect.
“Nuclear talks with America are over and we have nothing else to discuss,” he added.
“It’s quite likely that the U.S. Congress or the next administration will act against Iran and imposes new sanctions.”
There is no reason to doubt that they mean this. If the United States does not bring considerably more leverage to bear than it currently has done, there is no reason for Iran to re-open negotiations. The deal they got is broadly in their interests, and there is no reason to believe they could obtain a better one from their perspective.
Further, Iran’s public opinion seems to support their government in rejecting renegotiation. While Iran is authoritarian, and thus it is harder to get reliable numbers on what the people really believe, it is likely that these numbers are fairly accurate. SSG’s Iranian sources report that rejecting American interference with their nuclear program is broadly popular, especially with the youth. The program has caught the imagination of patriots of the Iranian regime, for whom it has become a symbol of national pride.
The Iranian regime thus has no reason to change its mind on renegotiation, and a good reason not to do so. The United States will need much more leverage than it currently has to bring Iran back to the table.
3) Get Congress to change the certification process
There are apparently several variations on this idea, but all of them are built around the idea that the major problem with the Iran deal is that President Trump hates re-certifying it. The recertification process was created by Congress, not by the JCPOA or the United Nations. Congress can therefore change it. If Trump only had to knuckle under and sign a recertification once a year, or once every six months, it might be easier to convince him to do it. Alternatively, perhaps it could be taken off his plate entirely: perhaps the Secretary of State could be empowered to sign the recertification through some technical process.
Congress is unlikely to take this road, nor ought they to do so. For one thing, it would not fix any of the problems with Iranian compliance — it would only make it more comfortable for the United States to ignore those problems. Key members of Congress have already come out against the deal as it stands, making it unlikely that you could get to the 60 votes you would need to get cloture on a bill to change the certification requirements. For example, Sen. Tom Cotton just said that “The vast majority of Republicans in Congress continue to believe the Iran nuclear deal was a very bad deal that’s had very negative effects, not only on the four corners of the deal itself, but on empowering Iran and their support for terrorism.”
It is unlikely that Senators who believe that are going to be motivated to vote in favor of making it more comfortable to turn a blind eye to Iranian provocations. It would not fix anything for the United States to do so in any case. It is a terrible plan, one that will fail because it deserves to fail.
Those three options are simply not going to work. The first one is based on a false hope, the second one requires leverage we do not have, and the third one has no potential to fix the real problems with the deal in any case. Congress would not pass it, and should not.
There are better options out there. The Security Studies Group remains prepared to help seek them out.