We have another major point of confusion around the world regarding the direction of U.S. foreign policy. For the last one year, we have heard contradictory messages from the different branches and actors of the U.S. government. During the crisis in the Gulf, while President Donald Trump blasted Qatar with tweets and supported the Saudi-led coalition, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis contradicted with president and used a different rhetoric concerning the crisis. Later, during the crisis in North Korea, we saw similar chaos. While Tillerson mentioned talks with the regime in Pyongyang, Trump one more time tweet him out, telling him not to waste his time with dialogue. Some may consider these forms of inconsistencies part of a purposeful strategy of good cop and bad cop. If so, it is not well-implemented. With rumors about the possible developments concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and U.S. position on it, we started to see another wave of contradictory voices from different members of the administration.
The JCPOA, when it was signed, was already a controversial agreement. The major disagreement between the White House and Congress on this deal and Republican skepticism about the agreement made the issue a significant foreign policy problem for Republican candidates during the presidential primaries. During his campaign, Trump made multiple statements about the deal. Although there were discrepancies among these statements – for instance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) summit, he said that his number one priority will be “to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran”, whereas in a piece in USA Today he said he will “renegotiate with Iran,” constantly calling the deal very bad for the U.S. He was also very reactive to Iran’s role in different conflicts of the region. His foreign policy and security team members more or less agree that Iran constituted a major problem for the region.
Since his inauguration, one of the critical and often-asked questions about his foreign policy has been the issue of Iran. In the first months of his presidency, every observer of Trump’s foreign policy understood that Iran would be a priority for the administration. However, it was not clear what the administration would do with this issue. The fate of the nuclear deal was one of the most important questions. Every 90 days since the inauguration there were questions whether Trump would certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA or not. In time, the intensity of these questions also increased. In the last few days, as the Oct. 15 deadline for the next certification approaches, there are more rumors about Trump’s unwillingness to certify the compliance. Although it is still at the speculation stage, there are already several scenarios what could happen following such an action. Of course, the ball will be in Congress’s court if Trump refuses to certify it, but the questions do not end here. While the press started to publish stories that were leaked to from anonymous senior officials in the administration, some members of the administration do not seem to be on the same page as the president. Trump’s unwillingness to certify Iran’s nuclear deal compliance is not present among other officials. In a hearing last week, Mattis said that the deal is still in the U.S. national interest. He said: “I believe at this point in time absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford also backed this claim and said the deal makes U.S. safer. Although Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster avoided directly contradicting the president, they have followed a more cautious approach for U.S. policy on Iran. This situation is generating different statements competing against one another.
There is another question. If Trump does not certify Iran’s compliance, on what grounds would it be. The first option is Iran’s lack of compliance with the accord, which is hard to be claimed at this point following multiple intelligence sources and international watchdogs, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirming that Iran is complying. Thus, he may use the second option and claim that the agreement is against U.S. national security interest. Furthermore, the disagreement between the White House and Congress still exists in different forms. It is not clear what can happen in the 60 days that Congress has in case Trump does not certify the deal. Congress does not have the same appetite for this issue. Many members of Congress do not seem to be interested in taking up the issue again. Even those who opposed the deal before are in favor of keeping the JCPOA now. If Congress commits and adds additional sanctions, Iran will not accept it, and then the question of what European countries and other members of the P5+1 will do following that decision comes up. European countries made clear that they will not adopt the same set of sanctions on Iran. Furthermore, Congress does not seem to be adopting sanctions because of the concern of alienating the U.S. allies that backed the deal.The expectation at this point is for Trump’s speech on Iran, which some argue will present a more comprehensive policy on the country. This speech and his actions afterward will demonstrated how comprehensive and actionable the Iran plan is. Of course, after withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris climate accords, even speculation will impact U.S. commitment to its treaties and its reliability.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on October 9, 2017.