Reports indicate that President Trump came close to refusing to provide certification as to Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) – a move that would have immediately triggered expedited consideration of legislation re-imposing all statutory sanctions lifted under the JCPOA. President Trump was reportedly convinced to certify Iran’s compliance late in the day by his principals – including Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis – but all indications suggest that the Trump administration may refuse to provide such certification in the future. This is particularly the case insofar as the NSC-led interagency Iran policy review is expected to be completed within the next couple of months, if not sooner.
Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (“INARA”), enacted in 2015 soon before the JCPOA was agreed to, the President is required to provide certification as to a number of items every 90 days, including: (1) that Iran is fully implementing the agreement; (2) that Iran has not committed a material breach of that agreement; (3) that Iran has refrained from any action that significantly advances a nuclear weapons program; and (4) that sanctions relief, as provided under the JCPOA, is appropriate and proportionate to the measures taken by Iran and remain vital to U.S. national security interests. Failure to provide such certification triggers expedited consideration of legislation re-imposing those statutory sanctions targeting Iran that were relieved as part of the U.S.’s commitments under the JCPOA. Due to the current make-up of Congress, where Republicans – long viewed as opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran – exert majority-control over both Congressional houses, such legislation would likely pass and be sent to the President for his signature.
The President has enormous powers to determine whether to provide certification under INARA. But if President Trump is intent on scuttling the nuclear accord, he need not wait for the 90-day period to toll to de-certify any or all of these items nor must he wait for Congress to re-impose statutory sanctions. First, INARA provides that the President must provide such certification “at least” every 90 days – e.g., the President could de-certify, at any given time from here until the next certification is due in October, that Iran is fully implementing the JCPOA or that continued sanctions relief serves vital U.S. national security interests. Second, President Trump could altogether ignore INARA’s procedures and simply revoke existing waivers of statutory sanctions, re-instate those Executive Orders terminated under the nuclear accord, and re-designate those Iranian parties de-listed pursuant to the JCPOA. Nothing in U.S. law would prevent the President from taking such action, whether in response to perceived Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA or not.
The President is able to take such measures as a result of the manner in which sanctions were lifted pursuant to U.S. obligations under the JCPOA. Rather than work through Congress – which had evidenced its displeasure with the President’s diplomacy – the Obama administration utilized the statutory powers available to it to relieve Iran sanctions consistent with the nuclear agreement, including by revoking certain Executive Orders, waiving the imposition or application of statutory sanctions, and de-listing certain entities or individuals designated for sanctions under Executive authorities. Just as the Obama administration had the statutory authorities available to it to relieve Iran sanctions, so does the Trump administration have those same authorities to re-impose the sanctions lifted and thwart U.S. adherence to its JCPOA commitments.
So long as the U.S.’s future adherence to the JCPOA remains unclear, the landscape of Iran sanctions will be unsettled and caution will be likely to prevail amongst parties interested in re-engaging the Iranian market. Things have no doubt moved slow so far – slower than even some on the U.S. side may have expected – and the Trump administration’s apparent agnosticism towards the U.S.’s future compliance with the JCPOA will not help matters.