Not terribly long ago, Iran was seriously working to develop nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, as we know, generally receive a big thumbs down from people interested in not being horrifically killed by a hostile foreign power. To alleviate the discomfort of a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, President Obama and leaders from every other nation at the big kid table signed an agreement trading the lifting of economic sanctions for the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program in 2015. Thus far, the deal has been a success. There is widespread agreement across the international community and from our own intelligence that Iran has complied with the deal.
Yet, armed with the terrifying information that Iran is upholding its end of the deal and everything is actually working out pretty well, President Trump announced that he is “decertifying” the Iran deal. This announcement doesn’t have an obvious meaning – his announcement means that he is recommending that the United States not uphold our part of the deal (no more sanctions) because it is no longer in our national interest. Congress is now tasked with deciding whether or not to put sanctions back on Iran in accordance with the President’s announcement. While this feels more benign than leaving the Iran deal altogether, the Iran deal has far greater implications than how well this will poll with President Trump’s base.
The President’s decertification of the Iran deal brings us to dangerous territory; any act of Congress that should follow up on decertification by reimposing sanctions on Iran will surely have worldwide implications. For starters, the Iran deal is not just a deal between the United States and Iran. Rather, it is an agreement between the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, the European Union and Iran. The rest of the world is not in this deal because they have the same background as Americans regarding Iran, and they will not follow us out of the deal when no one believes Iran has actually violated the agreement. We are alone on this one.
In addition to the isolating effects of removing ourselves from the Iran deal, there are serious implications for how we deal with North Korea. It is generally accepted that there will only be two options for solving the issue of a capably nuclear North Korea: there’s the diplomatic version, involving a nonproliferation agreement like the one we have with Iran, and there’s the military version, involving a likely short but deadly intervention which leaves Seoul smoldering under the best of circumstances. Until this point, presidents have generally passed the issue onto his successor, but that will not always be a viable option.
If the deal we would hope to strike with North Korea is likely to be extremely similar to the terms of the Iran deal, i.e. trading a non-nuclear North Korea for an international lifting of economic sanctions, then it follows that our ability to follow through with such a deal is linked to what happens with Iran now. What hope do we have of relying on the trust of the international community if we break an agreement without a legitimate reason now?
The negative effects of pulling out of the Iran deal are unlikely to end with the analogous North Korea situation. At present, the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet, point blank. Whether measured by economic output, prominence in international organizations or military size, no other country dominates the world stage quite like we do. And part of being the world’s superpower means that we have to do the job of being the superpower, or someone else will.
Perhaps we can hope that the Congress is equipped to process the deftness it will take to temper the President’s whims. Without sanctions placed by Congress, there’s a solid chance that the Iran deal will continue on, mostly successfully. Decertification in and of itself cannot cripple an international agreement singlehandedly; surely Republicans can keep it untogether enough to prevent sanctions from passing. But you know what they say about trusting Paul Ryan to be the courageous one in American politics.