Take Time to Improve Iran Pact

Jewish Light Editorial

With another date for action approaching, President Donald Trump has made clear he will refuse to certify that Iran is in compliance with the controversial nuclear arms deal reached under Barack Obama in 2015.

That refusal would pass the issue along to Congress, which could decide whether stricter sanctions are the best way to deal with the specter of a nuclear power in the unsettled Middle East.

While the Iran deal is far from flawless, the White House should resist the temptation to reverse yet another accomplishment of the Obama administration. Instead, the more prudent course would be to certify compliance for another 90 days but also signal to Congress that it should come up with a more workable solution by the end of that period, so decertification could give way to a viable approach to a persistent problem.

Putting such pressure on Congress but giving it a longer lead time would have several advantages. Foremost, it would delay decision making by a president who unfortunately tends to tweet first and consider the consequences later. A nuclear threat, whether it comes from Iran or from North Korea, is not the kind of issue that should get a knee-jerk response; it calls for careful deliberation and nuanced diplomacy, neither of which have been hallmarks of the Trump White House so far.

Under terms what is known technically as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the president must certify every 90 days that Iran is “in compliance” with the terms of the deal.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the pact, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of a treaty that some favor scrapping altogether.

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Solid arguments exist on both sides of the issue, as shown by two opposing views published last week by The New York Times.

In an op-ed piece with the headline “The Iran Nuclear Deal Isn’t Worth Saving, Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, argued the pact is deeply flawed and should be allowed to die.

Oren said the alternative to the pact is not conflict but the opportunity to strike a better deal that would put more intense pressure on Iran. If they were considered originally, he said, such changes could “have stripped Iran of capacities like uranium enrichment, which is unnecessary for a civilian energy program, and linked any deal to changes in Iran’s support for terrorism, its regional aggression and its gross violation of human rights at home.”

If the treaty is canceled, Oren concluded, “the deal must be replaced by crippling sanctions that force Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons capacity.” 

On the other side, in an editorial headlined “Mr. Trump, Don’t Scrap the Iran Deal,” the Times said that if Trump refuses to certify compliance, it would amount to “his most feckless foreign policy decision yet.”

It noted that despite the president’s pledge as a candidate to back out of what he called “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” the International Atomic Energy Agency, the American intelligence community and the Pentagon all confirm that Iran is honoring its commitments.

In light of those conclusions, the newspaper said, the United States would have the best chance to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions by remaining united with its partners in the deal.

Between those two extremes, the most sensible course of action would be for Trump to certify the deal for another 90 days, as he has already done twice before, and let the issue be debated by Congress, though it hasn’t been able to get much done so far.

If it could come up with alternatives, the deal might be salvaged or even strengthened.  The agreement was of sufficient importance that it should have been debated and voted upon in Congress in the first place.

With issues like immigration, tax reform, disaster relief, gun control, health care and others stacking up in Washington, and the specter of North Korea’s nuclear program looming, a 90-day pause on the Iran deal makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. Here’s hoping the president will take the deliberate, patient course on an issue that has long-term implications for the world at large.