James S. Robbins 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement. The positive finding of the State Department’s routine periodic review of the nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was surprising given President Trump’s assessment that it was “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Some analysts believed Tillerson was signaling that the Trump administration would let the agreement stand rather than “rip it up” as the president had promised.

But there is something deeper going on. The key language in Tillerson’s statement dealt with the National Security Council’s inter-agency review to determine whether continued suspension of the sanctions is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.” This phrasing points to the key weakness in the structure of the deal.

Barack Obama was eager to sign a comprehensive agreement with Iran, but was unwilling or unable to assemble the type of domestic political coalition needed to sign a formal treaty, or to have Congress rescind the sanctions laws, which are still on the books. Instead, U.S. negotiators cobbled together a deal based on exploiting loopholes that allowed the president to waive various aspects of the sanctions laws when “it is in the national interest of the United States to do so.” For Obama the answer was, yes it is. The Trump team says, not so fast.

Much has happened since the Iran agreement was implemented that raise questions about whether its costs outweigh its benefits. The deal gave Iran access to around $100 billion in frozen assets around the world. Questions the NSC can examine include: how much money has Iran received? How much has been used to support Iran’s global terrorist network? How much has underwritten Iran’s intervention in Syria’ civil war? How much has gone to Iran’s controversial and potentially illegal missile program, which incidentally is not covered by the agreement? And is Iran in fact complying with the deal, or is it cheating?

In addition, previously secret aspects of the deal have begun to be revealed, such as the Obama administration freeing Iranian prisoners accused of major crimes related to the nuclear and missile programs. These shady aspects of the bargain make it easier for the Trump administration to make the political case against it, which Americans opposed by wide margins to begin with.

 If the National Security Council determines that Iran’s activities are not in U.S. national security interests, the president can lift the sanctions waivers. This puts Iran in a bind. Tehran has threatened it could restart its nuclear program “in a new manner that would shock Washington.” But if Iran chooses openly to violate the terms of the deal, this would activate the agreement’s Article 37 “snap back” mechanism which restores all the pre-JCPOA international sanctions. The only way the “snap back” would not happen is if the UN Security Council votes otherwise, but the United States could veto any resolution that keeps the deal alive.

This puts Iran in a lose/lose position: accept renewed and potentially tougher U.S. sanctions while staying within the framework of the JCPOA; or breach the deal and suffer the “snap back” consequences. Of course, Iran could just attempt to go full-bore to develop nuclear-armed missiles as quickly as possible and hope for the best. But the developing crisis with North Korea should be instructive to Tehran. The Trump administration is less willing than its predecessors to accommodate or ignore the nuclear ambitions of rogue states.

Welcome to the art of unmaking the deal. OK Iran, your move.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

originally published in the Dallyrecord