Donald Trump’s decision on Iran nuclear deal brings uncertainty

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President Trump will take a leap into the diplomatic unknown Friday if — as expected — he strikes a blow at the 2015 deal that the Obama administration and other global powers reached with Iran to curb its nuclear activities.

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A decision by Mr. Trump to “decertify” the multinational accord under U.S. law — effectively declaring that Iranian behavior means the accord is no longer in the U.S. national interests — will throw the issue into the lap of Congress, which could do nothing or could unilaterally reimpose wide-ranging economic sanctions on Iran that analysts say would effectively scuttle the deal.

Iran and key U.S. allies, who still support the accord, have sent conflicting signals on how they will respond. Interested bystanders — most notably North Korea — are watching closely to see how successful the Trump administration will be in trying to wring fresh concessions from Iran.

Mr. Trump has long condemned the nuclear deal as an “embarrassment” to the United States because Tehran has continued with aggressive and meddlesome activities in the Middle East, despite the lifting of sanctions and the return of tens of billions of dollars frozen abroad after the agreement was reached.

The president has argued that Tehran has also badly undermined the spirit of the deal by carrying out several ballistic missile tests over the past two years, in violation of a standing U.N. Security Council resolution that bans such tests.

With a major White House announcement on the deal set for Friday afternoon, Mr. Trump has shown no sign of backing down despite pleas from close European allies and the recommendations from his top military and diplomatic advisers to remain part of the deal.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson have indicated that they think it would be in America’s best interest not to bring about a collapse of the agreement, which has long been a source of flip-flopping and hand-wringing among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Several congressional Democrats, who split with Mr. Obama two years ago to oppose the nuclear deal, are now urging Mr. Trump to uphold it. They argue that robust enforcement is the best way to counter Tehran’s behavior in the Middle East.

But some influential Republicans, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce of California, are calling for Mr. Trump to proceed with extreme caution toward the idea of pulling the U.S. out of the agreement.

“As flawed as the deal is,” Mr. Royce has said, “I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it.”

His comments underscored bipartisan concern that Mr. Trump is about to set into motion an unraveling that could prompt other world powers that signed the deal to blame the United States — not Iran — for failing to honor its commitments.

Iranian leaders have already made that argument. President Hassan Rouhani predicted in recent days that the other powers, which include Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, won’t follow Mr. Trump if he pulls the U.S. out of the deal.

Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said during a visit to Russia this week, “I do not think that the world has taken allegations made by U.S. President Donald Trump seriously. The Iranian people should not be concerned as the world countries supporting them,” according to the state IRNA news agency.

Uncertainty

There is still major uncertainty over what Mr. Trump’s “decertification” of the deal will mean in real terms.

According to a law enacted by Congress in 2015, the president must certify that Iran is honoring the deal and that it is in the U.S. national interest every 90 days. Mr. Trump, in the early days of his administration, twice formally certified Iran’s compliance, but he clearly chafed at seeming to endorse an agreement that he harshly criticized on the campaign trail last year.

If Mr. Trump decides not to certify by Friday, the latest 90-day milestone, then Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose far-reaching U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

Unclear is what will follow if Congress fails to agree on legislation reimposing those sanctions. Also unclear is the extent to which the other nations party to the deal — if any — will recognize Mr. Trump’s decertification.

On its face, the decertification is a White House declaration that Iran has cheated on the terms of the nuclear deal. The catch is that the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has repeatedly said that Iran is in compliance with requirements regarding its nuclear programs.

Pro-deal analysts say Mr. Trump is poised to exploit a loophole in the 90-day certification law that allows him to decertify on much broader grounds — by simply declaring that the deal no longer serves U.S. national security interests.

This is dubious, said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She noted in a commentary published by the think tank this week that Mr. Mattis testified on Capitol Hill last week that it is in the U.S. national interest to stay in the nuclear deal.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also argued that U.S. interests will be best served by keeping the deal alive and aggressively policing it to ensure that Iran doesn’t violate the terms.

Mr. Engel expressed frustration Thursday that Mr. Trump is about to punt the deal to Congress. “Congress has a role to play in foreign policy, but we cannot pass a law to unilaterally change an international agreement,” he said. “If the administration wants to change the nuclear deal then the administration needs to work with our allies and negotiate.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday signed off on proposed legislation to empower Mr. Trump to expand unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting companies and individuals that aid Iran’s ballistic missile development programs.

The Associated Press reported that Republican lawmakers have drawn up versions of the law replacing the 90-day timetable with “semi-annual” certifications. The drafts expand the U.S. certification criteria to include items that are also the province of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and require the U.S. intelligence community to determine if Iran is carrying out illicit activity in facilities to which the International Atomic Energy Agency has not had access.

While Tehran has argued that any unilateral U.S. sanctions approved by Congress would violate the nuclear deal, the wider international community, including U.S. allies in Europe, generally agree that the sanctions are justified and have nothing to do with the 2015 accord.

CIA slams the IRGC

White House aides said Mr. Trump’s Iran announcement will go far beyond the decertification debate, focusing more broadly on a strategy toward the Islamic republic. White House aides say the list of grievances will include Iran’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its backing of such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Mr. Tillerson was calling foreign minister colleagues from the other parties to the deal to brief them on what to expect, the State Department said.

Speculation has also swirled in recent days that Mr. Trump will designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or some aspect of the Iranian paramilitary group, as a terrorist organization. The powerful IRGC, separate from the regular Iranian armed forces, are considered the military protectors of Iran’s revolution.

That move has provoked perhaps an even angrier reaction from Tehran than the nuclear deal decertification. “If the news is correct about the stupidity of the American government in considering the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American Army to be like Islamic State all around the world, particularly in the Middle East,” Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari told Iranian state media.

While the Trump administration has kept its decision on the IRGC close to the chest, CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Thursday suggested a major announcement is coming.

The IRGC and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence are “cudgels of a despotic theocracy” and the “vanguard of a pernicious empire that is expanding its power and influence across the Middle East,” Mr. Pompeo said in a speech at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Unlike ISIS and its mirage of a caliphate, Iran is a powerful nation-state that remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Pompeo said, according to a prepared version of his remarks circulated by the CIA. “The Islamic republic is Iran’s version of what the caliphate ought to look like under the control of an ayatollah and his praetorian guard, the IRGC.

“It openly vows to annihilate Israel,” he said, “and when you look at the death and destruction inflicted in Syria, Yemen and Iraq by Tehran and its proxies, the threat is clear: Iran is mounting a ruthless drive to be the hegemonic power in the region.”

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