President Trump on Friday kept alive the Iran nuclear deal he detests by waiving sanctions for the third time, but said he will not repeat the reprieve unless the agreement is amended to permanently block a potential pathway to build nuclear weapons.
In conjunction with the sanctions waivers, the Treasury Department placed sanctions on 14 people and entities for offenses unrelated to Iran’s nuclear industry. They concern human rights abuses and censorship in Iran and its arming of groups throughout the region.
Trump’s decision avoided placing the United States immediately in violation of the commitments it made in the 2015 deal. But he signaled his willingness to withdraw from the deal in ta few months unless changes are made..
“The president makes clear this is the last such waiver he will issue,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules for briefing reporters. “He intends to work with our European partners for a follow-on agreement.”
This was the inevitable walk-back of the ill-conceived and reckless decertification move last year, a gambit designed to assuage an irate president without actually impairing the JCPOA, which though flawed, has no visible, reasonable alternative at present.
Remember what was supposed to happen. The president was going to decertify, thereby scaring Iran and our allies into renegotiating the deal and forcing Congress to pass new legislation alternating or amending the deal. Nothing of the sort happened. The European Union condemned the move; the United States was isolated. Congress had not the wherewithal nor the desire to wade into the JCPOA, potentially setting off another stand-off with Iran, which remains in technical compliance with the deal.
Aside from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who seemed to be joining the reckless calls to end the deal, Trump’s senior national security advisers all urged he remain in the deal. We would not have the support of the Europeans, they explained. We would lose leverage to compel Iran to change its behavior on non-nuclear issues such as human rights and missile tests.
Trump had no card to play, so backed himself away from the ledge, although not without a threat to make this the last time he would waive sanctions. This is approaching President Barack Obama’s red line debacle in Syria. Trump has now demonstrated that he doesn’t say what he means. He bluffs and retreats.
All this episode has done is diminish Trump’s credibility, unnecessarily so. He could then and he can now negotiate with Congress and our allies for a comprehensive package to sanction Iran for human rights violations, missile tests, state support of terrorism and regional aggression. But who would follow this guy into negotiations now — and why would Iran make a deal with someone who never has a bottom line?
“The prospects of negotiating tougher metrics for a deal with Europeans strikes me as fantastical; the idea of doing the same with Congress unrealistic and pushing for a forever deal without any engagement with Iran stunningly and willfully obtuse,” says longtime Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller. “Trump has created. a make or break moment for the JCPOA which will force him to walk away opening door to more Iranian enrichment or once again backing down. This isn’t policy; it’s a Marx Brothers’ movie.”
The best course of action now would be for Congress on a bipartisan basis to signal its willingness to ratify any deal the administration can reach with the E.U. on a non-nuclear sanction package. That, by the way, would entail sanctions against countries and entities — such as Russia and Russian-owned banks — that continue to do business with Trump.
For now, kudos go to national security adviser H.R. McMaster who, according to multiple sources on the Hill, did the lion share of the heavy lifting within the administration and to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) who helped steer the ship away from the rocks.