By Nick Wadhams and Steven T. Dennis
President Donald Trump is weighing a new strategy to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions that would leave a 2015 agreement intact for now but ask Congress to toughen a law overseeing the Islamic Republic’s compliance with the accord, according to three administration officials.
The goal behind the strategy, which Trump is expected to announce next week, would be to present a unified front from the administration and Congress to European allies, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing an issue on which the president hasn’t announced a final decision. The officials declined to say if Trump would also “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the deal, a decision he has to make every 90 days under U.S. law.
Trump has railed against the accord, which was brokered during the Obama administration, as the “worst deal ever” and an “embarrassment to the United States.”
Asked in an interview broadcast on Saturday if he would pull the U.S. out of the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump said, “I won’t say that.”
“A few days from now, almost a week and a half to be exact, you’ll see,” Trump said in an interview with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. The segment was taped Friday at the White House. Trump repeated his view that the 2015 deal with Iran was “terrible.”
Before meeting with senior military leaders at the White House on Thursday evening, Trump told reporters, “We must put an end to Iran’s aggression and nuclear ambitions.” Saying that Iran hasn’t “lived up the spirit of the nuclear agreement,” Trump said “you’ll be hearing about Iran very shortly.”
But U.S. allies that are part of the accord, as well as China and Russia, say it’s been effective. They point to assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is meeting requirements to curb its nuclear program.
That hasn’t persuaded Trump. Although the president has twice certified Iran’s compliance with the agreement, which lifted a range of economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on the nuclear program, he signaled in a July interview with the Wall Street Journal that he wouldn’t do so again before an approaching Oct. 15 deadline.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders gave a hint about the new approach in a briefing with reporters Thursday, saying Trump will propose “a comprehensive strategy on how to deal with Iran” and will have “a unified team behind him supporting that effort.”
Staying in the accord but decertifying Iran’s compliance would meet a standard set publicly this week by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He told congressional committees that it’s in the U.S. interest to stay in the Iran deal but that decertification is a “distinct” matter.
The approach the officials mapped out is similar to one proposed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton this week. Cotton, a longtime opponent of the accord, suggested Trump could “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the deal without leaving the agreement, citing the Islamic Republic’s continued ballistic missile tests and its meddling in countries from Syria to Yemen.
Cotton added that he wouldn’t immediately seek a “snapback” of sanctions eased by the deal. Doing so would be considered a breach of the agreement, allowing Iran to reconstitute its nuclear program.
“Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face,” Cotton, who’s close to Trump’s national security advisers, said in a speech Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Doubts on Congress
Specifically, the proposal hashed out by Trump’s national security team would ask Congress to amend the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, according to the officials. One possible change would be to require that Congress periodically certify that Iran remains at least a year away from developing a nuclear weapon.
Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, is currently working on legislation to amend the original law, according to one of the officials. Corker declined Thursday to discuss prospects for action on the Iran accord.
An outside expert familiar with the administration’s thinking, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private, said the proposal put forward by Trump’s advisers would offer a “third way” — decertify that the deal is in the U.S. interest, roll out a comprehensive pressure campaign against Iran and use that to build leverage for negotiations with European allies in the future.
It’s not clear, though, that Congress, where Republicans have only a narrow majority in the Senate, would be able to approve any changes to the law. Another concern is that Republicans will come under pressure from opponents of the deal to kill it before a “third way” proposal could be put together.
“The administration is going to face an uphill battle to convince Republicans, who only begrudgingly supported the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act in 2015, to now reinforce it instead of reimposing sanctions and killing the JCPOA,” said Jamie Fly, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, using an acronym for the Iran deal. “It’s also not clear whether Democrats will want to give the president a win on this issue.”
Oct. 15 Deadline
Trump will unveil his new strategy next week, ahead of the Oct. 15 deadline, according to the officials.
While Trump said last month that he’s made his decision — and much of the focus in recent days has been on whether he will certify Iranian compliance — administration officials say no final decision has been made. Even if Trump he doesn’t certify that the deal is in U.S. interests, the multinational accord will remain intact.
The administration’s approach may help assuage European allies, who have privately expressed a willingness to work on other ways to control Iran as long as the U.S. agrees to remain in the nuclear deal. But that’s where they draw the line.
U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, standing alongside U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press briefing in London last month, said “it’s important that we make it work and that we keep it alive.”
— With assistance by Justin Sink