President Trump is expected to announce today that he cannot certify Iran's compliance with the terms of the agreement over its nuclear program that it entered into with the United States and five other nations in 2015. The president's decision, according to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, will commence a 60-day expedited legislative process during which the Republican-controlled Congress may re-impose sanctions against the Islamic theocracy for its intransigence and belligerence. Sanctions, I might add, that should never have been lifted in the first place.
What is striking is that, with the exception of Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, none of the Republicans and Democrats who opposed the nuclear deal two years ago with such vehemence have gone out of their way to prepare the ground and make the national security case for the president's decision.
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Now, the Democrats I can understand. They are just playing to type. To say a kind word for Trump's attempt to improve the deal would violate the secular commandment to resist his very being. The Republican silence, by contrast, is far more maddening.
This is the party that invited Bibi Netanyahu to criticize the deal in an address to a joint session of Congress. This is the party whose 2016 platform reads, "A Republican president will not be bound by" the deal and "We must retain all options in dealing with a situation that gravely threatens our security, our interests, and the survival of our friends." This is the party that nominated and elected a president who said his "number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran."
Yet the headlines preceding today's remarks have been almost entirely shaped by the deal's supporters, by the echo chamber that promoted and distorted the aims and conditions of the agreement to begin with. These were but some of the stories in Thursday's edition of the Times of Israel: "Barak urges Trump not to decertify Iran nuke deal," "Netanyahu at odds with security team over Iran deal," "With Trump set to decertify Iran deal, experts tell Congress to stick to accord," "Jewish Democrats who opposed Iran nuke deal now urge Trump to keep it." You have to look hard for a piece detailing Iranian noncompliance, explaining the process of decertification and its relation to the overarching agreement, or quoting defenders of the president and his policy.
And the reason you have to look hard is that there are few elected Republicans who are taking the lead on this issue. Internal division, uncertainty, and personal rivalry may once again prevent the congressional GOP from achieving the aims it has stated loudly and proudly for years. The parallels to the attempted repeal and replacement of Obamacare are startling and, for this conservative, disturbing. "This is health care for us," Ben Rhodes said of the Iran deal back in 2014. It would be both a diplomatic and a political disaster if the Republicans flopped as badly while trying to undo the central achievement of Barack Obama's second term as they had while trying to undo the central achievement of his first.
Iranian noncompliance is a no-brainer. Look at the number of advanced centrifuges Iran is currently operating, its repeated violation of limits on its heavy water stocks, its underground efforts to obtain nuclear- and missile-related technologies. Look at the IAEA's acknowledgment in September that it has difficulty verifying compliance with Section T of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which forbids "activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device."
And look at the Swiss cheese inspections regime. How can the president in good conscience certify compliance when no Americans are involved in the inspections, when inspections are limited to "declared" nuclear sites, when the Iranians have 24 days to prepare for IAEA inspections of other locations, when inspectors are forbidden from examining military bases? We have no idea what is going on in such places, much less in the places we do not know about. Remember: We didn't know about the installations at Natanz and Arak until 2002 and the one at Fordow until 2009.
Of course a serious agreement would allow access to military locations. The apologies for Iranian stubbornness on this point are absurd. "For many Iranians—including those who support the nuclear deal—keeping inspectors out of military facilities is a point of national pride," write Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim of the Los Angeles Times. Funny that national pride is okay as long as it's Iran we're talking about. Bengali and Mostaghim quote a "newspaper employee" in Tehran, Susan Saderi, who says, "It's our country, and any country's defense systems should be off limits to international inspections."
No offense, Ms. Saderi, but you know whose defense systems are not off limits to international inspections?
- Associated Press from 2014: "Russians inspect Montana nuclear launch facilities."
- Washington Free Beacon from 2014: "Russian Inspectors to Check U.S. Nuclear Cuts Amid Ukraine Crisis."
- Fortune last August: "Russian Surveillance Plane Makes Low-Flying Pass of Capitol and Pentagon."
- Wall Street Journal last August: "Top U.S. General Breaks Bread With Chinese Soldiers on North Korea's Doorstep."
Ok, the PLA probably didn't allow General Dunford to count ammo stocks in Shenyang. But the point stands. The arms control treaties we signed with the Soviet Union permitted American inspectors to visit military locations. That was the whole point of trust but verify. President Obama may have trusted the Iranians—but then President Obama trusted Harvey Weinstein to oversee his daughter's post-high school internship earlier this year. Why should Donald Trump play the patsy?
"If the political branches, [work] on a bipartisan basis on the parts of the deal we all know are flawed," Cotton said earlier this month, "we will have the strong and unified front between Democrats and Republicans, and between Congress and the president, that the Iran deal never enjoyed. That unity will help the president forge a unified position with our allies—not only the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, but also Israel and our Arab allies. Then it will be Russia and China who must choose between a stronger deal and being isolated and in league with the ayatollahs."
Are Republicans prepared to close ranks in a "strong and unified front" to remove the sunset clauses from the Iran deal, impose further limits on Iranian centrifuges, include Americans on IAEA inspection teams that have access to Iranian military bases, and constrain Iranian missile development? Or will they prove as disunited, feckless, spiteful, and incompetent as they did during the repeal and replace debacle?
I'm not sure I want to know the answer.