Certification of Tehran’s compliance is neither wise, necessary nor accurate
On April 18, the State Department certified Iran to be in compliance with its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). As France’s iconic foreign minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand, once reportedly said: “This was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”
The applicable statute not only did not require such a certification, it openly invited President Trump not to make one if circumstances warranted, as they clearly did here. More seriously, the certification raises fundamental questions whether the State Department’s bureaucracy knows or cares that U.S. Iran policy has changed with the Trump administration’s advent.
The applicable reporting statute requires that, at least every 90 days, the president must determine whether he “is able to certify” that among other things, “Iran is transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing the agreement, including all related technical or additional agreements,” and that “Iran has not taken any action, including covert activities, that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program.”
By the explicit terms of the reporting obligation, the president (whose authority had been delegated to the secretary of State) was required only to decide whether he could avow Iran’s full implementation of its JCPOA obligations. He was not required to make a binary choice, either certifying that Iran was complying or that Iran was not complying. He could have sidestepped, especially given his administration’s short time in office and its ongoing review of Iran policy, not to mention what we know about Iran’s violations just from publicly available information.
Of course, one consequence of not certifying compliance is that the reporting statute also provides for expedited legislative consideration of new anti-Iran sanctions legislation. That may have been the bureaucracy’s motivation, but, given Mr. Trump’s clear views on the Iran deal, could hardly have affected the White House view.
How could such a mistake have been made? Perhaps because of a significant challenge facing Mr. Trump, namely avoiding becoming entangled in a bureaucratic trap set by his predecessor.