Stack up the op-eds and essays on the disasters that await the world once Donald Trump moves into the White House, and you’ll have a long list of dismaying scenarios.
One that makes the lineups of most pundits involves a crisis with Iran. So imagine this. Trump struts to the podium for his first presidential press conference, the trademark jutting jaw prominent. He’s spent the previous several days using Twitter to trash the nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Unlike former president Barack Obama, Trump loves drama. But the JCPOA runs 159 pages, so he can’t literally tear it up on live television as part of his performance. (And no, it’s not the small-hands problem.) Instead, he announces that the nuclear deal is a dead letter, effective immediately.
Could he really do that? Pretty much—through an executive order stating that the United States will no longer abide by the accord and reinstituting the American sanctions that were lifted once the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) certified Iran’s compliance with the agreement and it survived a vote in Congress.
There’s a reason Trump might choose to quash the Iran nuclear deal in this manner. As the State Department put it in November 2015, responding to a clarification request from Congressman Mike Pompeo, a sworn enemy of the agreement and Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, the JCPOA “is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document.… [It] reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China), and the European Union. As you know the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems that culminate in political commitments.” Assuming that Trump would bother providing a nuanced defense of his decision, he could simply claim that the Obama administration had cut a global political deal that lacked legal standing and that, as he’d said repeatedly during the campaign, was also a terrible deal.
There’s not much Congress would be able to do. Indeed, Trump might not even face significant resistance from its members, because the agreement never had deep support there. In May 2015, even before the negotiators had signed the JCPOA, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), asserting its right to scrutinize the terms of the accord within 60 days of its conclusion and vote to approve or disapprove it. That bill passed 98-1 in the Senate. The lone dissenter was Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, who demanded that “a nuclear arms agreement with an adversary, especially the terrorist-sponsoring Islamist regime,” be submitted to the chamber as a treaty, in which case approval would have required a two-thirds majority. The vote in the House for INARA, 400-25, showed a similar lack of enthusiasm.