The Trump administration, delaying an anticipated confrontation with Iran until the completion of a long-awaited policy review, plans to recertify Tehran’s compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal, according to U.S. and foreign officials.
The recertification, due Monday to Congress, follows a heated internal debate between those who want to crack down on Iran now — including some White House officials and lawmakers — and Cabinet officials who are “managing other constituencies” such as European allies, and Russia and China, which signed and support the agreement, one senior U.S. official said.
As a candidate and president, Trump has said he would reexamine and possibly kill what he called the “disastrous” nuclear deal that was negotiated under President Barack Obama and went into effect in January last year. The historic agreement shut down most of Iran’s nuclear program, in some cases for decades, in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.
Under an arrangement Obama worked out with Congress, the administration must certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the accord every 90 days. If the administration denies certification, it can then decide to reinstitute sanctions that were suspended under the deal.
The Trump administration issued its first certification in April, when it also said it was awaiting completion of its review of the agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations, said the review should be completed before the next certification deadline in October.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations and other signatories have said repeatedly that Iran is complying with the agreement, under which the country dismantled most of its centrifuges and nuclear stockpile, shut down a plutonium production program and agreed to extensive international monitoring of all stages of the nuclear process.
Beyond disagreements over what supporters of the deal consider minor and quickly rectified infractions, and detractors assert are dealbreaking violations, there is broad consensus within the administration and Congress that Iran continues to participate in other prohibited activities not covered in the nuclear accord.
The question is how the United States should respond.
White House officials, including those charged with managing Iran policy within the National Security Council, believe Iran should be punished not only for nuclear violations, but also for its support of international terrorism and its development of ballistic-missile technology.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has statutory responsibility for certification, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have successfully argued that the nuclear deal should not be tied to punishments for those activities and that any nuclear-related action should await the review.
Officials cautioned that Trump, who has made clear his disdain for the accord, could decide not to sign off on the recertification between now and the Monday deadline but said that was unlikely. The decision to recertify was first reported Thursday by the Weekly Standard.
Next Tuesday, the administration must also comply with a separate deadline, reporting to Congress on Iran’s overall nuclear behavior and deciding whether to waive reinstituting sanctions lifted under the accord. That report, due 180 days after Trump’s inauguration, was part of restrictions lawmakers put on the agreement, as was the 90-day certification requirement.
As White House officials have asserted their role in the process, the administration has downgraded internal State Department mechanisms for monitoring Iranian compliance. In recent weeks, a separate State Department office of Iran Nuclear Implementation established by Obama was subsumed by the bureau in charge of overall Middle East policy. Both Stephen D. Mull, the lead coordinator for implementation, and Stuart Jones, the acting head of the Middle East bureau, are moving on from those jobs.
It is unclear who will replace Jones or whether Mull will be replaced at all.
Among those weighing in from the outside during the debate, which included a meeting of Trump’s national security principals last week, were four Republican lawmakers — Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Tex.), David Perdue (Ga.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
They urged noncertification in a letter Tuesday to Tillerson, saying that in addition to “violations” of the deal, “Iran continues to wage a campaign of regional aggression, sponsor international terrorism, develop ballistic missile technology and oppress the Iranian people.”
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has long criticized the accord and urged its reformulation, said that recertification was “the wrong decision.”
“I think the administration this time around should have made the decision not to recertify, explain why, and actually gone ahead with the waiver and slapped on some new nonnuclear sanctions.”
Noncertification would not automatically trigger the end of the deal. That would require the United States to allege a “material breach” on Iran’s part and a referral to the joint commission of signatories to the agreement for assessment. But proponents of the accord said that a failure to certify would nonetheless trigger unwanted reactions.
Even if new sanctions were not related to Iran’s nuclear program, said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, “the real question is whether under those conditions the political support inside Iran for compliance with the deal will continue.”
Allegations of Iranian violations, he said, are “trumped up” and “not supported by any evidence. . . . They have exceeded heavy-water limits by a tiny percentage, and gone back into compliance within days.”
Tillerson aide R.C. Hammond made clear that his boss believes that Iran is behaving badly in a number of areas, regardless of the assessment of the nuclear deal, and that a new policy is being formulated. “All the Obama Iran deal did was pay for a pause” in Iran’s nuclear program, he said. “It didn’t fix any problems. What we’re going to try to do is fix the problems.”
The senior official added that unlike the previous administration, “this administration sees the JCPOA as a symptom, not the disease.”
“The disease is broader Iranian aggression. That’s what the strategy review is focused on, and until it’s complete, it’s difficult to know what is the best resolution,” the official said. “The president has been very frank about his opinion.”
Friday is the second anniversary of the signing of the deal, negotiated with Iran over a number of years by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union. Other signatories have been open in their rejection of Trump’s assessment, and they have warned that they would continue to honor the agreement, and increase their trade and relations with Iran, no matter what the United States does.
“I know that in the U.S. there is a review ongoing,” E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at a news conference Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “We respect that. But we also have the duty to make it clear that the nuclear deal doesn’t belong to one country. It belongs to the international community, to the U.N. system. . . . We share responsibility to make sure that this continues to be implemented fully by all.”
Carol Morello in Kuwait contributed to this report.