The Trump administration is expected to announce next week that it will not formally certify Iran as in compliance with the landmark nuclear agreement, a move that could kill the agreement and set the stage for Congress to reimpose harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, according to multiple U.S. officials and sources familiar with the situation.
While some senior Trump administration officials—including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—are pushing for President Donald Trump to preserve the deal, it has become increasingly clear the president is frustrated with Iran's continued tests of ballistic missile technology and rogue operations targeting U.S. forces in the region, according to these sources.
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Designating Iran as in non-compliance with the deal would loosen restrictions on how the United States can target Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, which has been the main entity behind Iran's military operations in Syria and elsewhere in the region. It also would allow the administration to save face in the short-term by not technically walking away from the agreement.
The final nail in the coffin, these sources said, was the recent admission by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, that it cannot fully assess whether Iran is working on sensitive nuclear explosive technology due to restrictions on inspections and specific sites in the Islamic Republic.
This disclosure has roiled congressional opponents of the deal and is said to have finally pushed the Trump administration to stop certifying Iran as in compliance with the deal, a decision which must be made by Oct. 15.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a vocal opponent of the deal, told the Washington Free Beacon that Trump has no option but to decertify Iran and allow Congress to enact harsh penalties that could lay the groundwork for the entire agreement to be scrapped or renegotiated.
"The IAEA's admission that they are unable to verify a fundamental provision under the nuclear deal—that the Iranians are not engaging in activities or using equipment to develop a nuclear explosive device—is highly alarming. In these circumstances, issuing a compliance certification would be serious mistake," Cruz said.
"If the Iranians are serious about a peaceful program, they need to prove it. Iran's continued refusal to allow IAEA access to military sites—a clear requirement of the terms of the deal—renders the JCPOA utterly ineffective, and, even worse, a sham that only facilitates Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons," Cruz said. "This absence of any meaningful verification is yet another reason to vitiate this foolhardy agreement."
Senior congressional officials working on the matter told the Free Beacon that recertification should be off the table. Attempts by some Trump administration officials to argue in favor of preserving the deal are no longer valid, these sources said.
"This should be the final nail in the coffin for recertification," said one senior congressional aide intimately familiar with how the issue is being worked on in Congress. "In what universe would Iran need nuclear explosive devices if its leadership has truly abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons?"
"It's clear Tehran has no interest in upholding its commitments under the JCPOA," the source said. "Congress will work with the Trump administration to hold Iran accountable for its illicit, ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons."
Trump is said to feel the periodic reviews mandated by Congress are a "source of embarrassment" and the move to decertify Iran would kick the issue back to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Associated Press reported. While Iran has threatened to walk away from the deal in such a scenario, decertification could show a sign of strength that does not include fully abandoning the deal.
Other administration insiders who spoke to the Free Beacon said the president no longer wants to pretend the deal is working.
"The president already knew that continued sanctions relief to Iran was inappropriate and not in our interest given their behavior, which was more than enough to decertify. He said so repeatedly," said one veteran Iran analyst close to the White House and privy to discussions about the matter. "Now there's this new issue where the IAEA just admitted publicly they've been unable to verify entire sections of the deal, which makes the whole thing a no-brainer."
"Decertifying clears a lot of clutter off the table because our guys no longer have to pretend the deal is a good deal," the source said. "They can let it stay in place for a while or try to fix it, all while focusing on the rest of Iran's aggression."
U.S. officials familiar with the certification issue say that the Trump administration has mounting concerns about provisions in the agreement that do not fully permit international inspectors and the U.S. to obtain knowledge about the extent of Iran's nuclear work.
Additionally, U.S. officials and those in the White House believe sunset clauses included in the deal that remove most restrictions on Iranian nuclear work in less than 10 years are a problem. Iran's continued ballistic missile work and restrictions preventing the IAEA from inspecting all of the country's contested sites also are viewed as problematic.
Even if Iran is in full compliance with the agreement, these outstanding issues have caused enough concern to warrant Trump re-opening the deal to negotiation.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R. Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in public remarks Tuesday evening that Trump should decertify Iran's compliance, a move that Iranian leaders have said they already expect to take place.
"Even if they were complying with it—even if it was fully verifiable they were complying with it, which it's not and which they aren't, it is still not in our viable national security interests because it does not block Iran's path to a bomb," Cotton said.
A chief concern among administration officials pushing to salvage the deal is that the inspection regime, while flawed, is still in the globe's best interest, as it keeps a layer of transparency around Iran's activities.
Retired four-star Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the National Security Agency, told the Free Beacon that there are always challenges to ensuring Iranian compliance. However, some level of inspections is better than none at all.
"Confirming compliance is always challenging," Hayden said, echoing the thinking of many current and former U.S. officials. "That's why the intelligence folks always insist on an invasive monitoring regime. That combined with national capabilities should give you reasonable confidence."
"The chairman of the Joint Chiefs said yesterday that Iran was not in material breach of the deal," Hayden noted. "That looks to be true and I would expect the intelligence community to be able to detect significant breaches."
The chief challenge is ensuring Iran is not cheating on the deal by engaging in illicit research activities or other types of nuclear work that are less easy to detect, according to Hayden.
"Cheating around the edges would be a different matter," he said. "Of course, all this would be harder to do if the deal collapsed and the international inspectors were no longer able to perform even their current tasks."
David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a group that has monitored the Iran deal, told the Free Beacon the IAEA's recent admission confirms the concerns of many that nuclear verification is not possible under the current agreement.
"The IAEA has adequate authority under" United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which codifies the nuclear agreement, "to verify Iran's voluntary commitments," such as compliance with a halt to nuclear research, Albright said.
The IAEA appears to lack the "political will" to exert its authority and demand access to Iranian sites that could be hiding nuclear-related equipment and advanced explosive devices, according to Albright.
The issue is complicated by political tensions, such as Russia's opposition to more rigorous inspections.
"The United States will need to make a specific request to [IAEA Director General Yukiya] Amano to verify adequately Section T and tell him in clear terms that his lack of effective action could spell the end of the JCPOA," Albright said, referring to the nuclear deal by its official acronym.
"Because Section T is not being verified, then the JCPOA is not being fully implemented," Albright added. "As a result, the president would be justified to cite the lack of full implementation in his rationale for not certifying" Iran as in continued compliance.
Update 2:07 p.m.: This post has been updated with additional reporting.