Renewed Uncertainty for the JCPOA

by Derek Davison

With relatively little fanfare, an important deadline passed by on December 12: the 60-day window during which Congress could have reimposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. That window had been opened on October 13 when President Donald Trump—under the terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA)—refused to certify that the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was in America’s national interest.

In announcing that he would not certify the JCPOA in October, Trump made it clear that he wanted Congress to alter its terms or at least take action to pressure Iran and the other parties to the deal into altering its terms:

That is why I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons. These include the deal’s sunset clauses that, in just a few years, will eliminate key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.


The flaws in the deal also include insufficient enforcement and near total silence on Iran’s missile programs. Congress has already begun the work to address these problems. Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter- — this is so totally important — an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law. So important. I support these initiatives.

Per INARA, the failure to certify triggered the aforementioned window, during which Congress had the authority (not subject to a Senate filibuster) to simply reimpose all American sanctions on Iran that had been suspended under the terms of the JCPOA. Doing so would have meant that the United States was withdrawing from the accord, and—because many of those sanctions were so-called “secondary” sanctions that apply to any country or company that does business with Iran—could well have meant the collapse of the entire deal. Thanks in no small part to an intensive lobbying effort by European diplomats who support the deal, Congress has opted not to take that step.

Likewise, legislation to strengthen the deal’s terms or address other perceived Iranian misdeeds appears to have stalled. A bill drafted by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) would, among other things, create a new condition whereby sanctions could be reimposed against Iran in perpetuity if the Islamic Republic is ever deemed to be less than 12 months away from possibly building a nuclear weapon.

But that measure has met with near-universal opposition from Democrats and the Europeans, who say it would represent a unilateral reworking of the JCPOA’s terms, and even from some ultra-hawkish Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who believe the measure doesn’t go far enough. And contrary to Trump’s October remarks, observers say that his White House has not been actively engaged in working with Congress on developing a bill.

JCPOA supporters, who might be inclined to celebrate the end of the 60-day INARA window passing without incident, are instead questioning what happens next. In his October 13 speech, Trump seemed to suggest that, if Congress failed to take action to change the nuclear deal, he would take unilateral action to scrap it:

However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Trump may have been hoping Congress would make at least a cosmetic change to the accord, something he could use to claim victory and move on. But now the onus is squarely back on Trump to decide the nuclear agreement’s fate. Two deadlines will arrive in mid-January that will give Trump an opportunity to terminate the deal if he wants. In one, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must issue a new round of waivers to maintain Iran’s sanctions relief. With the International Atomic Energy Agency continuing to certify that Iran is complying with its JCPOA requirements, it will be difficult for Tillerson to justify reneging on America’s. Of course, ongoing rumors about Tillerson’s job security make it hard to predict whether he’ll still be secretary of state in January, let alone what he might do if he is.

The second deadline applies to Trump. In a scenario that calls to mind the film Groundhog Day, INARA’s 90-day certification deadline, the one whereby Trump refused to certify the deal in October, is up again next month. At that time, Trump will again have the option to refuse certification and reopen another 60-day window for Congress to reimpose sanctions. There’s no reason to believe Congress would be any more open to taking that step in January and February than it was in October and November, but for proponents of diplomacy and the nuclear accord this could just be the beginning of an indefinite cycle of threats to both.

Photo: Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. World leaders, and many Americans, are getting so fed up with President Trump that ignoring (tweets) or bypassing him are becoming their action items. He certainly doesn’t like that the whole world isn’t applauding his successes and majesty, and so it is to be expected regarding JCPOA that he will not certify again in January. Hopefully the Congressional Parliamentarian will determine that the filibuster exemption was a one-time thing. What else he will do about Iran is unknowable. The war hawks can be expected to turn up their pressure on him and the Congress. If we are lucky, some movement on the DPRK front might relieve that pressure. Let’s hope!

  2. The only ‘Power’ discourse the United States understands is an unstoppable ruthless excessive ‘Force’ whose onslaught would smash the US forces and their imperialist values; then, all that the American politicians and their media empire can do is to broadcast their usual rhetoric on ‘the civilized world’, ‘democracy’, ‘international community’ and the ‘international laws’. In the absence of such a ferocious legitimate Force the US would deploy dirty psychological warfare tactics especially when attention-seeking crooks dressed up as politicians lead the game. As a historical inevitability, the day will come when such battle-hardened forces will have to unit out of necessity and deep hatred, and that will be the dawn of a new era when the world will no longer have to accept irrational biased norms and racist laws set by the UN and the Zionist controlled American institutions.

    The Muslim world while bleeding for too long under the heels of ruthless Western forces has also been kept passive and ignorant of its enormous potential for a radical political change; but the historical change and the collapse of the American values is inevitable! The change will come and it has to come as the dignity of millions of Muslims is at stake, not just in the occupied territories and Jerusalem but across the entire Muslim World.

  3. The CIC (Congress-Israel Complex) and Trump really, really want revenge on Iran for its part in defeating the US in Syria and it’s sort of entertaining to watch them flail around over it. We may assume that Trump is driven by all those general officers he has around him, who have lost yet another war (in Syria). These are the same people who got Trump to change on Afghanistan and are driving the Korean histrionics.

  4. current headline
    US to present ‘irrefutable evidence’ that Iran violated the nuclear deal
    > Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, will present “irrefutable evidence” that Iran has violated the Iran deal, according to her office.
    >Haley will go after Iran for allegedly providing missiles to Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen.

    There is nothing in the JCPOA about missiles or foreign aid.

  5. Who would have thought that the WH would be one day occupied by a bunch of Zionist chills who have nothing but more wars lined up for the US and its allies …

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