In his policy speech last Friday, President Trump did not scrap the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as some prominent conservative thinkers had suggested he should. Nor did he simply leave the deal intact, as proponents of the agreement had previously counseled. Instead, the president charted a middle way intended to give America greater leverage over Iran's nuclear program and processes.
To start, it's necessary to understand that formally "certifying" the agreement - which the president has now declined to do - isn't actually part of the deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Rather, it is a separate condition imposed by the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a piece of legislation cobbled together by Congress in an effort to gain oversight over the Obama administration's maddeningly opaque negotiating process with the Iranians.
That requirement forces the administration, every 90 days, to certify that Iran is still compliant with the terms of the JCPOA, that it isn't working on nuclear weapons, that it hasn't breached the accord in any material way, and that the continued waiver of nuclear-related sanctions remains in America's national security interests.
Whatever one thinks of the agreement itself, Trump's decision to "decertify" rested on solid foundations. This is because, among many other flaws, the United States and its allies do not have full oversight over the totality of Iran's nuclear program. There are sites where nuclear work is being conducted that the Iranian regime simply won't allow international inspectors to see. As a result, it's impossible for the international community to assess definitively that Iran is in full compliance with the deal and isn't moving ahead with nuclear weapons work - something that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, has itself admitted.
So what comes next? For the moment, at least, the president has signaled that the United States will stop short of walking away from the agreement entirely. But he has made clear that a significant renegotiation of the deal's terms is a condition of America's continued participation in it.
There's at least a chance that this might be possible.
First, while many European leaders have taken a dim view of Trump's more skeptical approach to the JCPOA, at least some have indicated that they're open to revisiting - and tightening - its provisions in order to maintain the integrity of the pact. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, recently suggested that the 2015 agreement could be bolstered through "future consultations" that create longer-term curbs on Iranian capabilities. And as European officials become increasingly convinced that fixing the JCPOA is the only way to salvage it, this sort of thinking is liable to be more and more widespread.
Iran, too, is interested in preserving the deal, albeit for its own reasons. The terms of the JCPOA, as currently constructed, are extremely favorable to the Islamic Republic, and have helped set the Iranian economy on a path of sustained recovery. As such, Iran's leaders have every incentive to make further concessions in order to keep new sanctions at bay. Indeed, in recent days, Iranian officials have quietly signaled that they might, in fact, be willing to reopen negotiations with the West over their country's ballistic missile arsenal - a key source of concern for Washington because of its potential use as a delivery system for nuclear weapons.
Finally, the new, more comprehensive Iran policy outlined by Trump last week can also help restart the conversation over Iran's nuclear capabilities and obligations. The centerpiece of this approach is a blacklisting of Iran's most important strategic actor: the regime's clerical army, known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Doing so, the president has made clear, is necessary to roll back Iran's malign activities in the region. But, given the IRGC's massive role in Iran's economy, it can also create valuable political and economic leverage that might help bring the Iranians back to the nuclear negotiating table.
Will all this be enough to fix an agreement than many - including the president himself - consider fatally flawed? It may not be. But the Trump administration should be given credit for trying to more completely address the contemporary threat posed by Iran. That process starts with a sober look at the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and an exploration of how to fix its flaws and mitigate its consequences.