Since taking office, President Donald Trump has faced a dilemma — how to make good on a campaign promise to tear up the Iran nuclear deal.
Barack Obama’s administration already gave back a substantial amount of money in frozen assets — including $1.7 billion ferried to the hostile regime in packets of cash that resembled a ransom payment because it was timed with the release of American prisoners. What’s more, punishing sanctions painstakingly put together after negotiations with other major countries have gone away. European allies are not eager to re-impose them.
Trump announced a strategy on Friday that stops short of withdrawing from the international agreement but holds open that very real possibility. Instead, the administration will throw the issue to Congress in hopes of laying the groundwork for a renegotiation of the deal in a way to cover not just the nuclear program but a broad range of issues.
"History has shown that the longer we ignore a threat, the more dangerous that threat becomes," Trump said during a White House address.
The president reviewed the long history of Iran's transgressions against the United States, Israel, and the wider region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which brought the regime to power. He noted that the Iran Nuclear Review Act — passed to allow for congressional oversight of the nuclear deal — requires the administration to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. Trump said that will no longer happen.
"We cannot and will not make this certification," he said. "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."
Briefing reporters Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that Iran has been in technical compliance with the terms it agreed to with the United States and other countries to shut down its nuclear program. But he said the president favors a more comprehensive approach to Iran's mischief-making in the Middle East.
"We've talked about how that's only a piece of what concerns us about the relationship with Iran, and how we don't think that nuclear agreement should define the entire policy," he said. "And quite frankly, in the past, it more or less has defined the Iran policy, the nuclear agreement."
The policy Trump announced splits the difference between scrapping the agreement altogether and proceeding on a status-quo path in perpetuity. Doing nothing will allow Iran eventually to fulfill its nuclear ambitions even if it never violates the pact. That is because several provisions have expiration dates.
"What we really have is a countdown clock to when Iran can resume its nuclear weapons development program," Tillerson said. "That sounds an awful lot like some North Korean deals that we've seen in the past."
"In other words, we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran's path to nuclear weapons."
As Trump put it Friday: "In other words, we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran's path to nuclear weapons."
Under the new policy, rather than the Trump administration's having to recertify Iran's compliance every 90 days, it will be up to Congress how to proceed. Tillerson said lawmakers could decide to do nothing and maintain the status quo or reimpose sanctions that the United States lifted as part of the deal.
The secretary of state said the Trump administration will urge a third option, which would involve amending the Iran Nuclear Review Act to affix firm benchmarks that automatically would trigger sanctions for violations of the nuclear agreement — but also for transgressions involving issues such as Iran's ballistic missile program.
Doing so, the administration hopes, will set the stage for Iran and the European countries to begin negotiating a more comprehensive agreement to replace the current one. Such a deal, Tillerson said, should eliminate the sunset dates and allow sanctions to stay in place indefinitely if Iran triggers them.
Fred Fleitz, vice president of policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy, told LifeZette that he hopes Trump formally pulls out of the nuclear agreement if Congress does not act in 60 days.
"My view is that the president is giving Congress and Europe one last chance to fix the agreement," he said. "Now, I think that's impossible … But he's being magnanimous."
Trump also ordered the Treasury Department to target the finances of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which U.S. authorities say foments terrorism. Such sanctions could target individuals and entities owned or partially owned by the Revolutionary Guard.
Critics of the administration contend that if the United States pulls out, it would allow Iran to resume its nuclear ambitions only from a stronger position since it already has its money back and is out from underneath sanctions that other countries are unlikely to re-impose.
But Fleitz called that a "false argument." He said America has the strength and influence to force cooperation by threatening to sanction any company that provides Iran with nuclear or ballistic missile technology. A choice between doing business with Iran or the United States is an easy one to make, he said.
"We're the biggest economy on earth," he told LifeZette.
Tillerson said the administration is confident that the sanctions to be imposed on the Revolutionary Guard do not violate the current deal because they are in response to transgressions separate and apart from the nuclear program.
Asked by a reporter whether trying to change the terms of the deal and reimposing sanctions would lead other countries to conclude they could not trust the United States, Tillerson responded: "I think they can trust we'll never do a deal this weak again."
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Last Modified: October 13, 2017, 8:44 pm