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What will happen to the Iran nuclear deal under Trump?

July 18, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
New sanctions were slapped on individuals and groups tied to Iran's ballistic missile program, hours after the State Department again certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal struck two years ago. William Brangham speaks with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner and Nick Schifrin about the schism within the Trump administration about Iran and the nuclear deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It has been two years since the Iran nuclear deal was struck, a central and controversial part of the Obama administration’s legacy.

But President Trump has made no secret of his dislike for the agreement, and that is one part of heightened tensions with Iran.

William Brangham has more.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On the campaign trail, candidate Trump vowed to rip up the international community’s agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

But, last night, President Trump took the required step of certifying whether Iran was in fact complying with its end of the deal. And this was the second time the Trump administration certified it was.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, while affirming Iran’s compliance, said they’re not off the hook.

HEATHER NAUERT, State Department Spokeswoman: There are still a lot of things Iran is doing that are very troubling to this administration. And so we’re going to try and push on the Iranian regime to stop its destabilizing activity.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In fact, the president had to be convinced by his national security team Monday to agree to this step, for now.

Simultaneously, the administration maintained a tough posture on Iran’s non-nuclear activities, imposing fresh sanctions on its ballistic missile program and its most elite military unit.

U.S. officials say Iran’s ballistic missile tests, its support for the militant group Hezbollah, and its increasing harassment of other nations’ ships in the Persian Gulf violate the spirit of the nuclear agreement, though they’re not expressly prohibited.

HEATHER NAUERT: Some of the actions the Iranian government has been involved with undermine that stated goal of regional and international peace and security.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insists Iran is living up to the nuclear bargain and that the U.S. has run afoul of the deal by adding these new sanctions and discouraging companies from investing in Iran.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, Foreign Minister, Iran: Iran, in our view, and in the view of the IAEA, built trust by implementing its side of the bargain. The United States didn’t.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Zarif warned that if this keeps up, Iran could choose to pull out of the deal itself.

Meanwhile, the U.S. says it is reviewing its entire Iran policy, even before the next certification deadline, which is just 90 days away.

For more on the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, I’m joined now by our own Margaret Warner and Nick Schifrin.

Welcome to you both.

Nick, I want to starts with you first.

I know you have been reporting, and several others have, that President Trump certifying that Iran was in fact in compliance with the deal was no easy matter. Can you sort of explain, what are the divisions within the administration?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes, this was a real struggle.

This time, we had what is called the interagency process. It took weeks to get to the point where we were about 12:00 yesterday. And that process said the president is ready to recertify that Iran is in compliance. The president said not so fast.

On one side, you have the president, President Trump, and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. This is a larger struggle, frankly, vs. — the pragmatic vs. the ideological sides of the administration. So, you have Trump and Bannon on one side, and you have most of the national security establishment on the other side.

You have Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford. And for the next five or six hours, those two sides were debating.

The president and Bannon say, we don’t like the deal. It’s not permanent. And the deal is not what Iran is about. Iran is about the things that your piece just mentioned, ballistic weapons, not allowing free access in the Gulf, terrorist support across the region, and that’s the larger problem.

The other side said, look, you may not like everything that Iran does, but the fact is that those other issues are not part of the deal and that Iran is in compliance, and, until it’s not, you have to recertify.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Margaret, help us out with that. The argument is that if they’re not violating the letter of the law, perhaps they’re violating the spirit of the law. What’s true and what is not?

MARGARET WARNER: It’s true that they are complying with the letter of the law. And the State Department spokeswoman said it again today.

And there was no real spirit of the law. I mean, there’s a phrase about it’s hoped that everyone will be positive in the region or something. But the negotiators made a deliberate decision to corral, to only deal with nuclear, because they knew if they got into ballistic missiles or Iran’s threat on Israel and all the other things you mentioned in your piece, the whole thing would fall apart.

There were some in the administration who had hoped that a more benign environment would result because they built this working relationship, John Kerry and Javad Sharif, though a very senior official who did a lot with Iran said to me, oh, me, they are going to be actually worse after the deal because they want to prove to the hard-liners that they’re not wimps and they’re not weak.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The schism that Nick is describing within the Trump administration is also reflected in a schism within Iran itself.

President Rouhani was elected initially to open up negotiations with the West, to deliver on this deal. He was recently reelected, but that is not a unanimous decision and feeling within Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t certainly at the time.

He had to really — Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei had supported him, sort of, had to really fight hard-liners. Where I do think there is a lot of unhappiness in Tehran is the point that Zarif made, that the money has not rolled in as they expected, meaning foreign investment.

I mean, part of it was, as one person who had been very involved said to me, oil was $100 a barrel when they started the negotiations, $40 after. The energy companies aren’t exactly dying to rush in. Their banks are almost, I wouldn’t say insolvent, but a lot of bad loans.

So, the companies have to be big enough to come in and fund it all themselves. And, finally, of course, there are all these signals, and they have gotten more intense since the Trump administration came in, far from encouraging banks — or at least John Kerry used to travel around with groups of aides saying, look, here is how you can do business, you won’t run afoul up the law — the Trump administration, that all ended.

And, instead, you have Tillerson saying things that — and Trump saying things that make the Iranians nervous and foreign investors nervous.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Nick, we have this situation now where the Trump administration says we are going to do a top-to-bottom review of our Iran policy, 90 days until the next certification deadline. What are we likely to see coming up?

NICK SCHIFRIN: The president doesn’t like this deal. That is very, very clear.

I had one official tell me today he didn’t think the president would recertify in the future. And that is the perception among a lot of people in this town.

What’s going to happen now, as you mentioned in your story, the administration is going to look at what it calls the totality of the problem, so not just review the nuclear deal, but review all of Iran’s actions. And that review will produce some kind of paper, some kind of guideline that will presumably include whether they will recertify in the next 90 days.

And if it comes out that the administration doesn’t want to recertify, that really means the deal is in absolute limbo. If there’s no recertification in 90 days, Congress immediately gets 60 days to either vote it down or to change it.

Whatever Congress decides, Iran will feel the pressure to respond in kind, and you could get a situation where the deal collapses, we lose, the U.S. loses access to the IAEA information that the deal allows in Iran, Iran restarts its nuclear program, and we’re back to where we were before the deal.

And that’s a lot of ifs, but those are exactly the ifs that most of the national security establishment is using to try and convince President Trump to stay in the deal.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Nick Schifrin, Margaret Warner, thank you.