On October 13, President Donald Trump announced that he would decertify the Iran nuclear agreement. What exactly does this mean for global politics and energy policy? Staff writer Zöe Sottile trekked to the School of International and Public Affairs to find out.
This Wednesday morning, three top global policy experts took their seats on the 15th floor of SIPA to engage in a lively discussion called “Decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal: What Does It Mean?” Jason Bordoff, moderator and founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, introduced the panelists: Richard Nephew, former Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, who helped design the current U.S. sanctions against Iran; Avril Haines, former White House Deputy National Security Advisor, and former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for the Obama Administration, and Helima Croft, Head of Commodity Strategy at RBC Capital Markets. I was clearly the youngest person there and also the only one wearing jean shorts, which made for a great start to the morning.
The panel began with a discussion of what exactly Trump’s decision means. Richard Nephew explained that the Iran nuclear deal is an international agreement designed to limit Iran’s nuclear programs by providing sanctions relief, with specific legislative frameworks for its implementation signed by each involved country. Essentially, the U.S. agrees not to sanction Iran, and Iran agrees not to build nuclear weapons. Every ninety days, the president is required to certify both that Iran is complying with its obligations and that the deal is in America’s national security interests. While no one disputes that Iran is complying with its obligations, Trump has started trouble by claiming the deal isn’t good enough for the U.S. In particular, according to Nephew, the Trump administration claims that the deal isn’t long-acting enough and that it doesn’t address non-nuclear issues. Trump wants to impose sanctions again on Iran – a quest Nephew called foolish because “the nuclear deal explicitly allows the U.S. to use sanctions in nonnuclear ways.”
So if we withdraw from our agreements with Iran, what do we do then? Avril Haines pointed out that the next step of action lies with the majority or minority leader of Congress, who can introduce legislation in the next sixty days that would be subject to an easier, expedited legal process. Most experts agree, though, that the U.S. would have to reimpose all of the old sanctions to receive this expedited process – in other words, sanctions against Iran are all or nothing. Moreover, the U.S. government, has the option to reach out to the United Nations and trigger a process that would reenact the sanctions the UN held before the agreement. This would put pressure on other countries to sanction Iran in ways inconsistent with the existing agreement.
Nephew built on Haines’s thoughts, adding that U.S. sanction law is extraordinarily complex. It has many different sources of authority, ranging from national emergency to specific statutes. There are many sanctions against Iran, but also many waivers making those sanctions temporarily void that the president has to recertify every 120 days. So even if Trump comes out with a clear decision about snapping back the old nuclear sanctions, it’s unclear what he’ll do about the current waivers.
One of the key comments of the talk came from Haines, who pointed out that the objective of the nuclear deal in the first place was to make it harder for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Whereas before the deal, the nation was only a few months away from having nuclear weapons at any moment, now it would take at least a year. In other words, the deal has worked so far. Haines also commented that much of the rhetoric around withdrawing from the agreement involves claiming that the U.S. can’t trust Iran. Haines pointed out that it’s because we don’t trust them that we have to make a deal with them to keep their nuclear weapons in check.
Helima Croft, finally, addressed the impact of these nuclear negotiations on the energy market. She said that Trump’s decision has injected a “political premium” into the oil market. The price of oil, she predicts, will rise by a few dollars and the price floor will solidify out of fear that Iranian exports may be reduced.
Nephew closed the discussion by connecting this specific decision to the larger Trump administration. He described the current government as having a “strong regime-change focus”, leading them to make drastic changes like decertifying the nuclear deal. On the other hand, he claimed that the administration doesn’t have enough staff to manage imminent crises, so they’re forced to deal with them on a situational basis. Faced with the mass of different policy crises sparked by decertification, Nephew imagines that Trump will likely sign on to a deal quite similar to the original nuclear agreement – leaving us where we started in the first place.
The panel was recorded and should be available online in a few days.
Photo via Flickr / U.S. Department of State.