10/13/17 Trump Decertifies Iran Nuclear Agreement

President Donald J. Trump, no doubt, felt he had to do something. After describing the 2015 Nuclear agreement with Iran as “a terrible agreement,” his personal pride would not allow him once again to certify that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, as is required by law. He, however, faced a dilemma. His advisers all asserted it is in America’s interest to maintain the agreement. Moreover, by all accounts, Iran has been very careful to remain in compliance with the letter of the agreement. The President used the clause in the 2015 Review Act that states continued suspension of sanctions is “in U.S. vital security interests” as a pretext, to decertify the agreement. He has however not called for the United States to exit the agreement immediately .

President Trump has called on Congress to take appropriate action, suggesting that Congress create a set of clear criteria that would automatically warrant reimposing sanctions in the future, but refrain from reimposing sanctions now. Trump has passed the ball to Congress — asking them to make foreign policy, instead of performing their normal role providing advice and consent. With Congress currently handling a full plate, it is not at all clear what will likely happen. Trump stated in his speech that if Congress does not take action he will act unilaterally to leave.

In Israel, Trump’s decision will be greeted with a great deal of head-scratching. For the past three weeks, during a very quiet period of Israeli politics (brought about by the Jewish holidays), the word has been that Trump planned to scrap the agreement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of the members of his current government might have been enthusiastic supporters of that course of action. However, most of the rest of the Israel’s security elite were afraid Trump would indeed take that step.. There is widespread recognition regarding the weakness of the Iranian agreement — especially its “sunset features”— but as the former head of Israel’s Mossad stated, just because the agreement partially expires in ten years, is no reason to terminate it now.

Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Intelligence and current head of the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote earlier this week in an article titled :Preparing an Alternative Strategy before Withdrawing from the Nuclear Agreement with Iran <http://www.inss.org.il/publication/preparing-alternative-strategy-withdrawing-nuclear-agreement-iran/> “Now is not the time to withdraw from the agreement. Rather, suitable strategic conditions should be created for a future withdrawal, if necessary, and leverage built for a better option.”

Yadin argues that for the medium term, as long as it is kept by the Iranians, the current agreement greatly increases Israel’s security. According to Yadlin, 5-7 years from now, as some of the features of the agreement lapse, its benefit becomes more questionable. But, it is precisely during that timeframe that work should be undertaken to strengthen it — not now — while that agreement is working and is in its stage of maximum effectiveness.

If implemented perfectly, the new Trump policy is intended to impact that period, when the agreement will be less effective. What most Israeli policymakers are afraid to state out loud is the fear the current American administration lacks the skill or bandwidth to successfully renegotiate an agreement with Iran — especially at a time when American relations with so much of the rest of the world are frayed. What some in Israel realize, is that the agreement is not a bilateral agreement between the US and Iran, but a multilateral one that includes Russia, Germany, France, China, Britain and the EU. None of the other signatures on the agreement have shown any interest in reopening negotiations at this time, and the Trump administration’s leverage with all of these countries remains limited.

Much of President Trump’s announcement, and the fact sheet distributed by the White House in advance, was devoted to the non-nuclear bad actor actions of the Iranian government, singling out the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. President Trump announced additional sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard. Beyond these sanctions, it is not at all clear how these general principles will be translated into actual policy; especially after the Trump administration’s tepid support of Israel’s concerns about Iranian influence near its border in Syria. But Israelis will certainly agree with principles laid out in President Trump’s speech regarding Iran’s disruptive activities.

Today’s announcement of a new policy regarding Iran came after yesterday’s statement that the US was withdrawing from UNESCO, in part, due to the organization’s once-sided anti-Israel decisions. The US stopped paying dues to UNESCO in 2011, after UNESCO admitted “Palestine” as a state, something the US strongly opposed. Until now, the US had been determined to fight a largely losing battle from within, as had Israel. Israel was caught by surprise by the American decision. Given that Israeli politicians across the spectrum from Avi Gabbay, head of the left-wing Labor Party to Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing National Religious Party hailed the US decision, Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to announce that Israel would begin its own process of withdrawing from the organization. It is not at all clear that withdrawing from UNESCO is actually something Israel wants to do — as Israel’s most recent policy, despite some setbacks, has been to aggressively defend its positions at the UN and attempt to take on greater leaderships roles in the organization. Outside analysts fear that weakening the US in the UN, will weaken Israel.

All of this has been happening against the background of a signed reconciliation agreement in Cairo between Hamas, who seized power in the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority who rules the majority of the West Bank. The Israeli response regarding this latest rapprochement has been muted to date. Previous agreements have fallen apart quickly and the consensus at the moment it that this understanding may not last either. The initial agreement leaves many questions open, foremost among them, what happens to the Hamas armaments. Until the remaining issues are resolved, it is not at all clear what the meaning of this agreement will be to Israel.

Due to the Jewish holidays these past few weeks have been very quiet in Israel, however events in Washington, New York, and Cairo these past days has the potential to significantly impact Israel.