Paul Pillar: The US cannot change the JCPOA unilaterally

Persia Digest – In October 2017, the US President, Donald Trump did not certify Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA, and handed over its fate to the US Congress. However, Congress did not take any measures within the deadline given to reach a decision and again the ball is back in Trump’s court. Two months ago, Trump warned that if Congress does not take any action in this regard, he would have USA leave the JCPOA; however, now, the Secretary of State says that the US intends to amend the nuclear deal with Iran and keep the US in the agreement.

Secretary Tillerson, in an interview with the Associated Press, said: “Changes in the domestic laws of the United States regarding US participation in the JCPOA may be resolved by next week or sometime later.” Tillerson added: “The approach of President Trump’s administration is that, initially, the laws of the US pertaining to the JCPOA should be changed and in the next phase the US will cooperate with its European allies in order to remove the flaws of the agreement.” Still, it seems that reaching agreement with congressional leaders in this regard in the little time left would be very difficult.

Persia Digest has conducted an interview with Paul Pillar about the faith of the JCPOA nuclear agreement.

Paul R Pillar is an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005, including as Executive Assistant to the Director. He is now a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, as well as a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He was a visiting professor at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012. He is a contributor to The National Interest.

You can read the interview here:

From the statements made by Secretary Tillerson it can be inferred that he is seeking to amend the law that reviews the JCPOA; this law was ratified by US Congress in 2015. (For example, removing the requirement that the President of the United States should report to US Congress every three months on Iran’s adherence to JCPOA). Would this satisfy Trump to remain in the JCPOA?

Members of Congress have been discussing (and reportedly have been conferring with the White House) about possible new legislation that would modify the 2015 law while still giving members and the president a way to make, to put it bluntly, an anti-Iran statement without killing the JCPOA. Congress has had many distractions, especially regarding taxes and other domestic issues, and there has not been visible movement regarding such legislation. Trump surely would be more comfortable without having to face regularly the certification requirement, but certification is only an artifact of the existing U.S. law and does not determine the fate of the JCPOA anyway. It is questionable whether any new legislation that did not itself violate the JCPOA would be enough to satisfy Trump and to keep him from pulling out of the agreement.

Since the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement that has also been approved by the UN Security Council, does US Congress or the US administration have the ability, and if so to what extent, to make changes in the contents of the JCPOA in order to convince President Trump to remain in the agreement?

No, the U.S. government does not have the ability to change unilaterally a multilateral agreement. Even most of the U.S. opponents of the JCPOA admit that, which is why they talk about “renegotiating” the accord. But the United States would have to give something to get something. Neither Iran nor the other non-U.S. parties seem interested in reopening an agreement that was reached through long, laborious negotiations. Talks about an expanded or follow-on agreement might be feasible, but changing the terms of the present agreement is not.

Considering the current situation, if no agreement is reached between the US Congress and the US administration in the coming days regarding the JCPOA, what decision will Donald Trump adopt regarding the JCPOA?

Trump still would like to kill the JCPOA. He will have advisers telling him not to, but he will not necessarily heed their advice. His rhetoric, going back through the presidential campaign, has constantly labeled the JCPOA as the “worst deal ever”. Trump has shown that if he has any guideline for policy, it is to try to undo whatever his predecessor did. And the JCPOA represents what may be Barack Obama’s most significant foreign policy accomplishment. Trump’s decision will be based on such personal impulses, not on careful consideration of what is best for U.S. interests.

In your opinion, in case the US exits the JCPOA and sanctions against Iran are re-imposed, what decisions should the Iranian officials take? I would like to have your opinion as a US expert regarding Iran’s decision-making? 

Iran should endeavor to keep the JCPOA in force by working with the other non-U.S. parties to the agreement. Iran’s economic relationships with those other parties are bigger than whatever economic relationship it would be likely to have with the United States any time soon.  Although the Trump administration might try to use the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. Treasury to discourage European firms and banks from doing business with Iran, such U.S. measures are very unpopular with the Europeans. Iran can work with the Europeans on ways to minimize their effects. In signing the JCPOA, Iran calculated that for its nuclear program to be limited in the ways the JCPOA limits it is still in Iran’s national interest. Certainly it would not be in Iran’s national interest to build a nuclear weapon. By keeping some version of the JCPOA going, it would be only the United States, not Iran, that would be the isolated party.