Trump Stops Short of Pulling Out of Iran Deal

President Trump leaves the podium after speak on Iran.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

President Donald Trump on Friday announced he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and vowed to terminate the agreement if its “many serious flaws” are not tackled.

“We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Trump said.

The president said he was directing his administration to work with Congress and allies to address problems with the deal “so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.” Trump said the deal’s sunset clauses, insufficient enforcement, and “near-total silence on Iran’s missile programs” need to be addressed, or he would nix the accord.

In the Friday speech, Trump also unveiled his administration’s more comprehensive – and confrontational – strategy toward Tehran, saying it would be aimed at dealing with the “full range of Iran’s destructive actions,” from its nuclear and ballistic missile programs to its backing of actors stirring instability in the region.

The Treasury Department, as part of the announcement on Friday, enacted tough sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps for providing support to terror groups and for the activities of its external operations arm, the Quds Force — which was previously designated in 2007 under the same terrorism executive order as the IRGC on Friday. The Trump State Department, however, has not put the IRGC on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Charged with preserving the Islamic Revolution, the IRGC is a significant force in Iran’s domestic politics, military, economy, and foreign affairs. This is a central part of the Trump administration’s push to highlight Iran’s active role in fomenting instability across the Middle East. The President made clear on Friday that his approach extends beyond decisions concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“That’s [the] main concern — Iran’s ambitions in the region, fueled by the additional money they receive and legitimacy that the JCPOA gave them. It has only renewed their confidence to pursue their strategic goals,” retired four-star General and former Vice Chief of Army Staff Jack Keane told The Cipher Brief.

General Michael Hayden told The Cipher Brief that people in the Departments of State and Defense – who did not think “walking away from the deal” was in the best interests of the United States – likely worked to find “a way that he could make a tough speech but essentially leave the deal intact.”

Trump’s announcement — driven by a U.S. law that requires the administration to notify Congress every 90 days about whether Iran is living up to the deal — opens up several potential scenarios. Members of Congress could introduce legislation to re-impose sanctions, the administration might focus on supplementing or reworking the accord in partnership with European allies, or the pact could ultimately unravel if the U.S. withdraws.

The immediate effect of Trump decertifying Iranian compliance is that he tosses the issue back to Congress, giving the House and Senate a 60-day review period in which party leadership can decide whether to introduce a bill to reinstate sanctions.

One initial response from the Senate was deeply critical.

“Breaking the Iran agreement would not only free Iran from the limits placed on its nuclear program, it would irreparably harm America’s ability to negotiate future nonproliferation agreements,” Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, said in a statement.

Others felt the Trump Administration did not go far enough. Speaking to Politico, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called the deal flawed and said “I’m generally skeptical of the ability to fix it. I hope I’m wrong. I’m concerned that continuing to adhere to the deal in any capacity has long-term consequences that would make things worse, not better.”

The multilateral agreement was reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany. European officials, who have pointed out that certification to Congress is a purely domestic process, have publicly ruled out renegotiating the accord.

In a joint statement released Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron said they “stand committed” to the agreement and its full implementation. “At the same time as we work to preserve the JCPOA, we share concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional activities that also affect our European security interests,” the statement read.

The European Union’s Federica Mogherini also said in a statement that Trump has no power to cancel the accord. It “is not a bilateral agreement, it does not belong to any single country and it is not up to any single country to terminate.”

“We cannot afford, as international community – as EU for sure – to dismantle a nuclear agreement that is working and delivering, especially now,” she continued.

Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney said decertification “will markedly undercut American influence with our allies around our broader priorities with respect to Iran.”

“Instead of co-opting the deep European investment in this agreement to generate new partnerships around addressing the real challenges that Iran poses to the region and its own citizens, Washington will have to engage in damage control with our key allies around the deal. It’s a profound waste of time and, more importantly, of hard-won diplomatic capital,” she said.

The administration will likely try to rework the deal in some way with its partners, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and head of its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, said.

This decision is part of what Dubowitz has dubbed “a strategy of decertification, waive, pressure, and fix.” Post-decertification, Trump should continue waiving the statutory sanctions that were lifted or suspended to implement the deal and the administration should impose significant pressure on the regime through its overall Iran policy and encourage a global pressure campaign against the country, according to Dubowitz.

“Fixing” the deal, in his mind, would stem from using the leverage of the credible threat that Trump has for being willing to walk away from the deal to try to rework it and bring European allies on board.

According to Keane, most important to the administration is amending the agreement’s sunset clauses, which stipulate when different restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire.

This will be tough, Keane says, “but it will also give the administration at least some time to deal with Iran’s aggressiveness and assertiveness in the region as they are on a path to attempt to dominate the Middle East.”

In his speech, the President emphasized that although the requirements of the deal seemed to be fulfilled as written, Iran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the deal. He cited two separate occasions when Iran exceeded its limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water — used in certain types of nuclear reactors — as well as its alleged intimidation of international inspectors.

Trump also stated that “there are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea,” adding that he would instruct U.S. intelligence agencies to “do a thorough analysis and report back their findings beyond what they have already reviewed.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already said he would not renegotiate the JCPOA. China, and Russia told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the U.N. in September that they wouldn’t budge on the deal either, according to The Washington Post.

Sharp contrast to the messaging of the U.S., according to former Acting Director of the CIA John McLaughlin. Speaking to the Cipher Brief late Friday, he described what other countries hear from this speech: “The signal is obvious and loud: be careful what you agree to in diplomacy with the United States — it may not hold.”

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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