Trump Puts Iran Nuclear Deal in Hands of Congress
Adam Edelman and Andrea Mitchell and Jonathan Allen
President Donald Trump is expected to put the 2015 Iran nuclear deal squarely in the hands of Congress, refusing to certify that Iran is compliance with the deal but letting lawmakers decide whether to tear it up.
Congress will now have to decide if they will reimpose sanctions on Iran with regard to the country’s nuclear program, or attach new conditions to the agreement. Those sanctions were lifted as part of the 2015 agreement, and reimposing them would effectively destroy the deal, known as the JCPOA.
Getting a decision on sanctions out of Congress — which has been unable to agree on any significant legislation this year — is considered unlikely, meaning the status quo on the Iran agreement could remain.
The announcement is expected to come in a noontime speech by Trump.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster confirmed Trump’s decision to reporters Thursday afternoon, explaining the goal for the move was to have Congress create “trigger points” for Iran that would mandate the re-imposition of sanctions if Tehran doesn’t meet specific revised criteria.
One such area might include the deal’s “sunset clause,” which has it expiring 10 years after it goes into effect, two senior administration officials and a person familiar with the ongoing policy discussions told NBC News.
Tillerson, however, admitted “we don’t disagree” that Iran is “technically compliant” with the deal currently, but that Trump had requested he and McMaster “put more teeth” into the agreement.
McMaster told senators last week that while Trump was poised to decertify Iran’s compliance, he will not ask Congress to pass new sanctions. That would suggest Trump’s move to decertify may be aimed primarily to appeal to his base, since it does not lead to either withdrawal from the Iran deal or new sanctions — both of which would isolate the U.S. and anger allies.
Without reinstating sanctions that have been waived in return for Iran’s agreeing to suspend its nuclear program, the accord would effectively be left in place.
In his speech Friday, Trump is expected to outline a more aggressive overall strategy with Iran that will focus on the country’s “destabilizing influence” in the region, “particularly its support for terrorism and militants,” as well as on its development of ballistic missiles.
According to talking points released by the White House on Trump’s speech, the president will say that those activities by Iran undercut “whatever positive contributions to regional and international peace and security JCPOA had sought to achieve.”
One of the big issues of concern to Tehran is how the president would treat the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hardline military wing that had already sanctioned for weapons proliferation under prior administrations. This is also of concern to European countries that do business with shell companies actually owned by the IRGC.
According to a senior administration official, Trump intends to designate the corps as a supporter of terrorism, but will stop short of calling it a foreign terror organization. The administration is required to make the designation under legislation Trump signed in August covering sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea. Although officials had until Oct. 31 to decide, they are including the designation in today’s speech of the larger Iran strategy.
Those in the administration who are worried about Iran misinterpreting or overreacting are eager to emphasize the distinction between being a supporter of terrorism and an actual terrorist organization. They also emphasize that it has no practical effect because of other existing IRGC designations, but that it could enrage the Iranians.
The expected decision, which Tillerson said he’d been “socializing” among lawmakers for weeks, had been met with resistance from the international community and, seemingly, members of Trump’s own cabinet.
Pressed by lawmakers last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis responded “yes” when asked if he thought staying in the deal was in America’s national security interest.
In addition, key allies, including Britain, France and Germany — known as the E3 — are warning that even without withdrawing, the new policy could isolate the U.S., strengthen Russia and China and signal to North Korea that it’s a waste of time to negotiate with the Trump administration.
And last month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview that decertification is tantamount to withdrawing from the agreement and would make “no one … trust America again.”
The president’s decision comes ahead of a deadline Sunday that triggers a 60-day window for lawmakers to determine whether to reimpose sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program that were lifted as part of the 2015 agreement.
Legislation passed in 2015 requires the president to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days, something President Barack Obama reluctantly agreed to in the face of bipartisan concern about whether Iran could be trusted to remain in accord with the agreement.
Trump, who often denounced the nuclear agreement on the campaign trail, once describing it as “a deal at the highest level of incompetence,” has now twice provided that certification, even as he maintained that the agreement was flawed and that Iran has violated “the spirit” of it.
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