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Trump to Keep Iran Deal Intact — for Now

President wants Congress to set up ‘trigger points’ that could kill agreement

John Kerry (center left), then secretary of state, sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (center right) in March 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, before resuming negotiations that led to the P5+1 deal on Iran’s nuclear program. (State Department Photo via Flickr)
John Kerry (center left), then secretary of state, sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (center right) in March 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, before resuming negotiations that led to the P5+1 deal on Iran’s nuclear program. (State Department Photo via Flickr)

The Iran nuclear deal is (not quite) dead. Long live the Iran nuclear deal (maybe).

After dubbing the 2015 nuclear pact the Obama administration and five other world powers inked with Tehran as the “the worst deal ever,” President Donald Trump on Friday will announce he is keeping the United States in the agreement. For now, at least.

“The intent is that we will stay in the JCPOA,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday evening at the White House, using shorthand for the Iran pact’s formal name: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “But the president is going to decertify” the pact, he added.

Trump’s decertification decision is rife with the kind of Washington insider bureaucratic jujitsu he harshly derided as a candidate and has continued to criticize as president. His move comes not within the actual framework of the seven-country agreement, but under a U.S. law passed in 2015 by lawmakers who were skeptical of the deal and eager to exercise oversight.

That means, for now, the Obama administration’s deal remains in place.

By opting against simply taking steps within his powers as president — such as slapping on sanctions removed by the pact — to rip up the deal, Trump’s move puts on hold a major campaign promise. Somewhat paradoxically, the same president described by his chief of staff on Thursday as having developed a “great frustration” with Congress will hand its 535 members a major role in deciding the fate of the Iran deal.

Trump is expected to describe why instead of scrapping the deal, he is plunging its fate into the uncertainty that is Capitol Hill, via a process set up under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA. In a rare move, a sitting U.S. president is essentially giving up some of his executive authorities, a move that will allow Congress to potentially terminate an agreement among the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom on one side and Iran on the other.

After a months-long internal administration review of the Iran deal that prompted crafting of the new strategy, “the president has come to the conclusion that he cannot certify under INARA that the sanctions relief that was provided is proportionate to … the benefit that we are seeing from that agreement,” Tillerson said.

What’s next?

From here, the secretary of state described three possible outcomes:

  • Congress could do nothing, and Trump, in 90 days, could recertify that Iran is in “technical compliance” with the seven-country agreement. (Tillerson on Thursday said administration officials do not dispute Tehran meets that standard.) The U.S. would remain in the framework, and the administration would adhere to its terms.
  • “Congress can choose to reimpose the sanctions, and obviously if they do that, that does put the JCPOA … in question,” Tillerson said.
  • Lawmakers can amend the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act with “some very firm trigger points” that would put the waived sanctions back in place if Iran crosses those lines, he said. While Trump would have to agree to those “trigger points” as envisioned by the administration, he would not need to act if Iran was ruled in violation of any one point. “There’s no other action required, the sanctions just automatically just go back on,” the secretary of state said. (Other than saying some would be tied to things such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, he declined to describe the envisioned triggers when pressed multiple times.)

It is the third option that Trump in his Friday afternoon remarks will formally recommend lawmakers choose. Uncharacteristically for Trump, that recommendation is a sign he and his team are eager to shift a large amount of responsibility for the Iran agreement’s ultimate fate off his shoulders and into a shared arrangement with the legislative branch.

Tillerson and White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom briefed reporters on the heavily nuanced decision Thursday evening, made clear Trump has the legal authorities to both reinstate sanctions on Iran that were nixed under the 2015 deal and to simply withdraw the United States from the pact.

Tillerson tried to sell the decision to bring Congress into the process as one aimed at allowing lawmakers to act, which will express a “full sense” of the U.S. government that “we have to deal with this now rather than later.”

The move to keep the multinational agreement in place is somewhat surprising, given Trump as a candidate spent over a year on the trail lambasting then-President Barack Obama for cutting the deal with Tehran. A month before the 2016 election, candidate Trump said Iranian officials “should write us a letter of thank you” for agreeing to “the stupidest deal of all time.”

New Iran talks?

But candidate Trump sometimes slipped in a bit of nuance that was rare for his bombastic populist campaign style. For instance, in September 2015, when Obama’s Iran deal was just two months old, Trump vowed to renegotiate the pact. It turns out those vows were a bit of foreshadowing.

Tillerson and McMaster were clear Thursday evening that the administration has now concluded that completely nixing the deal and opening talks toward a totally new one would be too heavy a lift. Instead, the duo told reporters the president is open to keeping the existing agreement in place with more forceful inspections and other implementation actions — while opening talks with all parties about a second agreement aimed at addressing a list of administration concerns.

That envisioned companion pact would address the Trump administration’s concerns that are not covered by the Obama-era agreement but would not replace it. Rather, Tillerson and Trump want a follow-on pact that “lays along beside” the initial one.

The chief U.S. diplomat told reporters he mentioned that desired second pact with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when they met briefly during last month’s United Nations General Assembly summit in New York. “I don’t want to suggest,” Tillerson said, “that we give that a high chance of success — but there is an openness to talk about it.”

In a midday speech from the White House’s opulent Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump later Friday will spell out not only his decision on the nuclear deal, but also a new U.S. strategy for dealing with Iran.

“The JCPOA … deals with nuclear activities only,” Tillerson said. “And we talk about how that is only one piece of what concerns us about our relationship with Iran. And that we don’t think that nuclear agreement should define the entire policy, and quite frankly, it more or less has defined the Iran policy. … That is a big concern.”

Trump and his team also harbor concerns about what Tillerson called Tehran’s “destabilizing activities … in the region,” including “direct support” to terrorist organizations. The broader policy Trump will describe is aimed at also addressing those kinds of issues, “which, by and large, have gone unaddressed in the past,” he said.

The new strategy also will aim to put pressure on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for alleged destabilizing activities in the region, such as support for violent extremist organizations.

‘Risky gambit’

National security experts who closely monitor those issues appear split on Trump’s decision.

Elizabeth Rosenberg and Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security view the move as an attempt to gain leverage over the other world powers involved in the nuclear pact. The former Obama administration officials contend that notion is “a very risky gambit that is unlikely to work.”

Rosenberg and Goldenberg, in a recent white paper, raised concerns about an Iranian response intended to test Trump — and bluntly predicted his plan wouldn’t work.

“The Trump administration appears to be pursuing a strategy that is unlikely to lead to any real near-term gains and over time appears most likely to destabilize and endanger an agreement that for the past two years has successfully contained Iran’s nuclear program,” they wrote.

But James Phillips of the conservative Heritage Foundation said the deal should be scrapped immediately.

“Iran has proclaimed it will not permit inspections of its military bases, which are permitted — indeed necessary — under the nuclear deal,” Phillips said. “The Trump administration should decertify and adopt a strategy to either fix or abrogate the nuclear deal.”

Bruce Riedel of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution said the move will be welcomed by some of America’s closest allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

“While Riyadh would welcome broad international cooperation to isolate Tehran, it will settle for Washington going alone,” said Riedel, who has worked on national security issues for Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama. “Saudi foreign policy has long made cultivating Sunni opposition to Shiite Iranian influence a high priority.”

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