President Donald Trump on Friday did what he does best: He threw a temper tantrum on national TV. To address what he called “the increasing menace posed by Iran,” he announced his refusal to send Congress a routine certification required by law that Iran is keeping its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. He also announced “additional sanctions on the regime to block their financing of terror,” and promised, “We will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.” In doing so, Trump will start a new nuclear crisis, one that he has no idea how to solve—and which may end with Tehran following Pyongyang’s lead, testing thermonuclear weapons and long-range missiles that can strike the United States.
Trump claims he has good cause for not providing certification. “Importantly, Iran is not living up to the spirit of the deal,” he said on Friday. But Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with monitoring and verifying the deal, was unequivocal last month: “The nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] are being implemented.” Even one of Trump’s top generals, James Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says so.
The real crisis here is Trump’s fragile ego. As a candidate, he called the Iran nuclear deal an “embarrassment” and the “worst deal ever.” So nothing has been more humiliating to him to be required, under the Iran Nuclear Review Act, to certify that Iran is, in fact, keeping its promises. This amounts to requiring the president to admit, in writing, that he’s a windbag.
Trump has provided this certification twice—although only after a knock-down, drag-out fight with his advisers both times. A senior administration official told CNN last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “has said the problem with the JCPOA is not the JCPOA,” adding, “It’s the legislation. Every 90 days the president must certify and it creates a political crisis. If the administration could put the nuclear deal in a corner, everyone could happily get back to work on dealing with everything else that is a problem with Iran.”
How this cumbersome requirement even came to be is itself an enormous act of political cowardice.
In 2015, the GOP-controlled Congress wanted a role in the process that led to the Iran deal. But members of Congress by and large loathe taking the slightest bit of responsibility for their actions. Their solution: the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which allowed Congress to review any agreement reached during the then-ongoing talks with Iran about its nuclear program. The bill, which sailed through both chambers by wide, bipartisan margins, ensured that if a deal was reached with Iran. The bill created the classic free vote in Congress—since Obama could veto any resolution of disapproval, members were free to vote against the agreement without actually putting the deal at risk. (A presidential veto proved unnecessary in the end.) Thus, political giants like senators Bob Corker, Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin had their cake and ate it, too.
Congress also required the president certify, every 90 days, that Iran is implementing its commitments. This was a seemingly cost-free way for Congress to appear to maintain a keen interest in the issue, while actually shifting the burden to the White House. Obama, playing the role of responsible adult, could be counted on to take the political blame and submit the certification. But no one would accuse Trump of being a grown up. So he’s tossing the issue back to Congress.
The Iran nuclear agreement will not automatically collapse without certification. Trump’s decision merely triggers a process by which Congress may, if it chooses, re-impose some or all of the U.S. sanctions that preceded the 2015 deal; it could also simply repeal the troublesome certification requirement. But members of Congress aren’t pleased about being put back on the spot. Corker seems unusually incensed, and why wouldn’t he be? After all, he’s managed to dupe the fact checkers into thinking he opposed the Iran nuclear deal just because he voted against it.
It might seem cynical to paint administration officials as toadies enabling Trump’s bad behavior, and members of Congress as cowards unwilling to take political risks for an agreement they know is our best chance to head off a nuclear-armed Iran. And yet, enablement and cowardice are precisely what we have seen over and over again, as our leaders have watched Trump seize control of the Republican Party and now our republic. Time and again, we have seen public officials take the easy way out.
Why should that change now? Trump got to throw his temper tantrum, while White House staff and members of Congress imagine that they are clever enough to placate him without quite killing the deal. There are already reports that Corker, along with Senator Tom Cotton, is drafting legislation that will alter the terms of the agreement with Iran. Once again, they want to have their cake and eat it, too: looking tough on Iran, without blowing up the deal. Maybe it will work. Then again, this is how we got Trump in the first place. Politicians thought they could avoid the political cost of stopping him from winning the nomination and then the election, while counting on others to do the dirty work for them.