But he probably won’t.
President Trump had his best chance to kill the Iran nuclear deal that he’s been attacking for nearly two years — and it looks like he’s going to let it live.
Trump has to decide by Friday whether to reimpose the sanctions that had been slapped on Iran several years ago because of its nuclear program. According to the Associated Press, he’s not going to. That means the deal will remain intact.
It’s in some ways a surprising decision for Trump, who late last year declared that the deal wasn’t in the national security interests of the US. It represents a major win for Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other top aides, who have spent months lobbying the president to preserve the deal. And it prevents what could have been a nasty fight with America’s closest allies, who believe the deal is working and have made clear that the US would stand alone if Trump pulled out of it.
At issue are old, currently suspended, US sanctions that were placed on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal, which crippled Iran’s economy by freezing Iran’s central bank out of the international financial system. They also punished foreign countries’ companies and banks for doing business with Iran, by forcing them to choose between doing business with the US or Iran.
Reimposing the sanctions would have effectively taken the US out of the nuclear deal, and Iran could then take that as a green light to resume its nuclear activities that were banned by the agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last spring that Iran is “completely ready” to restart its nuclear program if the US didn’t hold up its end of the deal.
Trump has declined to reimpose these sanctions before — they need to be waived every 120 days by the president — but there were serious concerns among lawmakers from both parties that he was prepared to put them back in place this time around.
That’s in part because Iran has been rocked by nationwide protests in recent weeks that began in response to difficult economic conditions and have since morphed into a broader critique of the Iranian political system. The protests have begun to die down, but some analysts wondered if Trump would capitalize on the Iranian government’s vulnerability by torpedoing the deal and trying to extract bigger concessions from Tehran on its nuclear program.
At least for now, it appears Trump is choosing a different path. According to the AP, Trump will leave the initial pact in place and instead unveil new, smaller sanctions that penalize Iran for activities that have nothing to do with its nuclear program. Those measures would target Iranian individuals and organizations over human rights violations, ballistic missile testing, and support for terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster all recommended that Trump stay in the deal, and it looks like they’ve probably won him over — for now, at least.
It also looks like Trump will avoid infuriating the US’s European partners in the deal, all of whom believe Iran is abiding by the deal. They’ve told Trump that they don’t expect to join the US in reimposing sanctions on Iran should he tear up the agreement, which would mean that Iran would be able to make a dash for nuclear weapons far more easily than before the deal was created.
Since his days on the campaign trail, Trump has railed against the Iran deal as a terrible agreement and promised to either change it to make it more restrictive on Iran or scrap it altogether .
But his record during his first year in office has been considerably less aggressive than his rhetoric. He has not persuaded any of the US’s partners in the deal — the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia — that the pact should be renegotiated. And he hasn’t taken any concrete steps to torpedo the deal.
Instead, the only thing he’s done is “decertify” the deal during a speech in October. It was a strange, wonky maneuver — it didn’t undo the US’s commitment to the pact, but it gave Congress a 60-day opportunity to reimpose sanctions through an expedited legislative process. Republican lawmakers made no efforts to do that, because they generally believe it is riskier to end the deal than to try to fix it. So Congress punted it back to Trump.
These days, Trump faces more pressure from Iran hawks to either work around the deal or find a way to make it a lot toughe r on Iran than to simply obliterate it by reimposing sanctions.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a critic of the Iran deal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that Trump is better off, strategically speaking, sanctioning Iran for activities outside of its nuclear program, like human rights abuses and its repression of free speech at the protests. “It’s high time that Washington develop an Iran policy that is less about uranium and more about Iranians,” he told me.
Michael Doran, a former senior director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, is an outspoken critic of the Iran deal, but on Tuesday he argued in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that fixing the deal would be much smarter than simply axing it.
“[Trump] and Congress could eliminate the nuclear deal’s sunset clauses — its most dangerous provisions — by making restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program permanent in US law and requiring more robust inspections,” he wrote.
The GOP generally shares that view. Instead of searching for ways to abandon the Iran deal entirely, Republican lawmakers are looking to pass legislation in Congress that would change the deal so that it would put a tighter leash on Iran’s nuclear program. The new measures could include, for example, the threat of future sanctions to penalize Iran for potentially expanding its nuclear program when some of its obligations under the deal expire.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), an Iran hawk who advises the White House on foreign policy matters and is involved in putting together the legislation, wants those new restrictions on Iran to be very, very onerous. If his view prevails, Democrats and many experts believe that the new legislation would undercut core commitments the US made when the deal was signed, and could ultimately kill the agreement.
So lawmakers are tasked with finding a way to make the legislation — which will require bipartisan support — change the US’s power in the deal to Trump’s liking, but without actually violating its terms as agreed to in the past.
But he probably won’t.