Tuesday 17 October 2017

President prepares to ditch nuclear deal with Iran and may return to sanctions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he’s not willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Photo: Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he’s not willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Photo: Reuters

Anna Gearan

US President Donald Trump is to announce next week that he will 'decertify' the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to a reluctant Congress, people briefed on the White House strategy have revealed.

'Decertification' would not kill the agreement as such, but would begin a 60-day period of review by Congress. During that window, the legislature could opt to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran, which were lifted as part of the agreement.

Such a move would derail the deal limiting Iran's nuclear activities that Tehran reached in 2015 with the US and five other nations.

But Mr Trump would hold off on recommending that Congress reimpose sanctions, which would constitute a clearer break from the pact, according to four people familiar with aspects of the president's thinking.

Preserving

The decision would amount to a middle ground of sorts between Mr Trump, who has long wanted to withdraw from the agreement completely, and many congressional leaders and senior diplomatic, military and national-security advisers, who believe the deal is worth preserving - with changes, if possible.

This week, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford expressed qualified support for the deal during congressional testimony.

And Mr Mattis suggested that he did not believe taking the step to decertify would scuttle the agreement.

Mr Trump is expected to deliver a speech, tentatively scheduled for Thursday, laying out a larger strategy for confronting the nation that he blames for terrorism and instability throughout the Middle East.

Officials cautioned that his plans could still change, and the White House would not confirm either plans for a speech or its contents.

Mr Trump faces an October 15 deadline to report to Congress on whether Iran is complying with the agreement and whether he judges the deal to be in the US national security interest.

"The administration looks forward to sharing details of our Iran strategy at the appropriate time," said Michael Anton, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

The fate of the nuclear pact is only one consideration in that larger strategy, US officials said - although, given Trump's focus on it as an "embarrassment", it is the most high-profile element.

The deal, which was signed under President Obama, was intended to close off the potential for Iran to quickly build a nuclear bomb by curbing nuclear activities the US and other partners considered most troubling.

It allowed some uranium enrichment to continue for what Iran claims is peaceful medical research and energy; the country says it has never sought nuclear weapons. In exchange, crippling economic sanctions were lifted.

At issue now is the fate of US sanctions - which were lifted by Mr Obama and - by extension whether the US will move to break the deal. That could open a breach with European partners who have warned that they will not follow suit.

Seeking a 'transatlantic understanding' about reopening or supplementing the deal is likely to be part of Mr Trump's announcement, according to one Iran analyst, who has discussed the strategy with administration officials.

Mr Trump said last month that he had decided what to do on Iran but that he would not divulge the decision.

Welcoming military leaders to a White House dinner, he said Iran had not lived up to its end of the nuclear bargain.

Bloodshed

"The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed and chaos across the Middle East," said Mr Trump. "That is why we must put an end to Iran's continued aggression and nuclear ambitions."

The president's senior national security advisers agreed within the past several weeks to recommend that Mr Trump "decertify" at the October 15 deadline, two of those sources said.

The administration has begun discussing possible legislation to "strengthen" the agreement, congressional aides and others said - a "fix it or nix it" approach suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the prospects of such an approach are highly uncertain and many supporters of the deal consider it a dodge.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last month that he would not reopen the agreement for negotiation.

Separately, representatives of Iran, China and Russia told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the same thing during a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session last month, two senior diplomats familiar with that meeting said.

Senator Tom Cotton, a leading Republican hawk on Iran, appeared to preview the main elements of the administration's plan this week, although he said he did not know exactly what Mr Trump plans to do. The two met on Thursday at the White House.

In a speech on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Senator Cotton said that Mr Trump should "decline to certify the deal and begin the work of strengthening it." (© Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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