If you weren’t reading the news closely two months ago when President Trump “decertified” the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, you might be forgiven for thinking the U.S. was no longer abiding by the deal. That is not the case.
Rather than unilaterally reapplying the sanctions that the Obama administration lifted in exchange for Iran’s pledge to limit its nuclear activities, Trump basically handed the problem to Congress. By refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal—even though all available intelligence suggests that it is—Trump triggered a 60-day review period, during which Congress could vote to snap back the sanctions. That 60-day period ended Tuesday.
Congress did nothing.
It’s tempting to read this inaction as a rebuke of Trump, but in fact, the president never actually asked Congress to reapply the sanctions, which would likely lead to the full collapse of the deal. Rather, he asked Congress to “fix the flaws” in the deal by passing legislation that would remove its sunset period and put new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. Sens. Tom Cotton and Bob Corker released a plan for how to do that back in October, but there’s no legislation pending, according to ABC News.
Democrats would be unlikely to support any plan they see as undermining the deal, and many Republicans would be unlikely to sign on to legislation that leaves the deal in place. Essentially, both the White House and leading Republicans in Congress hate the deal, but no one wants to take responsibility for killing it or for trying to fix it. Better still, we may get to start this process all over again when the next certification deadline comes on Jan. 15.
There’s some similarity to Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem last week. While Trump described his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a major change in policy, the State Department has made clear that there has been no formal change to the “position on the boundaries of sovereignty in Jerusalem.” For instance, American citizens born in the city will still have “Jerusalem” written as their birthplace on passports, not “Jerusalem, Israel.” No timetable has been set for moving the U.S. embassy to the city. Trump himself noted in his announcement last week that “we are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
These symbolic gestures might seem utterly pointless, but they are probably better seen as Trump fulfilling campaign promises, not accomplishing any real-world goal. It’s domestic politics, not foreign policy.