WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the case today for President Donald Trump to not certify Iran’s compliance when the nuclear deal comes up for review next month, effectively tossing the issue back to Congress.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank that was a main cheerleader for regime change in Iraq, Haley argued that the 2015 nuclear deal was deeply flawed. She said it did not resolve a long list of other US grievances about Iran’s behavior, from its support for the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah to its ballistic missile program.
“The truth is, the Iran deal has so many flaws that it’s tempting to leave it,” Haley said, while acknowledging that she did not know what Trump might do. “But the deal was constructed in a way that makes leaving it less attractive.”
Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the president must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. If he doesn't, it's up to Congress to determine whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions that the United States agreed to suspend under the nuclear deal.
Haley argued that this act requires the president to certify not only if Iran is complying with the deal but also whether the sanctions relief advances US national interests. The law “asks the president to certify that the suspension of sanctions against Iran is appropriate and proportionate to Iran’s nuclear measures and that it is vital to the national security interests of the United States,” she said.
Strikingly, in a nearly hourlong speech devoted almost solely to the deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal, Haley offered no vision for what alternative steps the Trump administration would take to restrain Iran’s nuclear behavior should it move to collapse the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“It was puzzling that she did not have better answers, consonant with her overall position, to basic questions, such as why the Europeans should support the US” withholding certification, Michele Dunne, a former State Department official and now director of Middle East programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor by email. “Also no answer as to why a world without JCPOA would be more likely to constrain Iran than a world with it.”
It was “more repeal instead of replace,” Dunne added, referring to Republican lawmakers’ eagerness to overturn former President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform without a plan for what should come next.
Even Republican experts sympathetic to Haley’s arguments about the deal’s flaws acknowledged she did not offer any vision or plan for what the Trump administration would do instead if it decides to walk away from the deal.
“Her presentation was, I think, well in line with longstanding criticisms of the JCPOA — that it insufficiently limits Iran’s nuclear activities, at best fails to address and at worst abets the non-nuclear threats Iran poses, and — like it or dislike it — is ultimately temporary,” Michael Singh, the former Middle East senior director in the George W. Bush administration National Security Council, told Al-Monitor.
“The real challenge the administration faces, however, is not identifying the weaknesses in the JCPOA, but rather determining what to do about them,” said Singh, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Haley acknowledged that America’s European allies want the United States to stay in the deal, but she said the United States has to determine for itself if the JCPOA is in the best interest of US national security. But while she argued that the United States should not be held hostage by international pressure to preserve the deal, she offered no reason why the United States would be better positioned to restrain Iran’s nuclear program or address Iran’s other troubling behaviors without it.
“No, they don’t want us to get out of the deal,” Haley acknowledged about the European allies, in a short question and answer period after her speech. But “are we going to take care of our allies, or look out for our interests? It’s not about European security. This is about what is in our national security interests.”
“You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” Haley added. “You can’t make the deal look better. The deal is flawed.”
“It is this unwillingness to challenge Iranian behavior for fear of damaging the nuclear agreement that gets to the heart of the threat the deal poses to our national security,” Haley argued in the speech. “The Iranian nuclear deal was designed to be too big to fail. The deal drew an artificial line between the Iranian regime’s nuclear development and the rest of its lawless behavior.”
There were several flat-out mistakes in Haley’s remarks, noted former member of the US nuclear negotiating team Richard Nephew, who went to the trouble of cataloguing them. Among them: Haley’s assertion that Obama intended the deal to not only restrain Iran’s nuclear program, but to address Iran’s other non-nuclear behaviors.
“This is simply not true,” Nephew wrote. “We decided long beforehand that we would not get a broader agreement.”
French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud had a similar reaction.
“The Iran deal is about the nuclear issue, nothing else,” he tweeted today. “So far, Iran is abiding by the commitments taken in this mutually agreed framework.”
Sources said that Haley’s expressed views on the flaws of the JCPOA were not reflective of the advice or information of career State Department officials and experts. As to who is advising her on Iran, “This seems to stem from her inner circle,” said one official, speaking not for attribution.
European allies said they continue to believe the nuclear deal’s benefits far outweigh any shortcomings. One official said the JCPOA provides for the most comprehensive monitoring and verification regimes of any nuclear program to date, with some special provisions beyond the Additional Protocol that go on for 25 years.
"We are very clear that right now our priority is working with the deal and making the deal work and looking toward the future," a European official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “That assessment has not changed, and Iran is complying.”