As Trump approaches deadline, what's next for the Iran nuclear deal?
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump could announce his secret decision on the future of the Iran nuclear deal next week.
U.S. officials familiar with the president's planning said Wednesday he is preparing to deliver an Iran policy speech in which he is expected to declare the landmark 2015 agreement contrary to America's national security interests.
The speech has been tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12 at an as yet undetermined venue in Washington, according to two officials who weren't authorized to publicly discuss the planning for the event and demanded anonymity. They cautioned that plans could still change, and the White House declined to comment on the timing or substance of Trump's pending announcement.
Trump faces an Oct. 15 deadline to tell Congress if he believes Iran is complying with the seven-nation pact and if it advances U.S. interests.
The president has called the 2015 deal, which forced Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for broad relief from international economic sanctions, one of the nation's "worst and most one-sided transactions" ever. But many of his top national security aides don't want to dismantle the deal, and America's European allies have lobbied the Trump administration heavily not to walk away from the agreement.
"We're going to give him a couple of options of how to move forward to advance the important policy toward Iran," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Wednesday. He said the Iran deal comprised "only a small part" of the government's approach to Iran, a traditional U.S. adversary in the Middle East that Washington considers the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
The Iran deal's future may hinge on a face-saving fix for Trump so he doesn't have to recertify the Islamic republic's compliance every 90 days, as mandated in a provision of a 2015 U.S. law known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
Several officials familiar with internal discussions say the periodic deadlines have become such a source of embarrassment for Trump that his aides are trying to find ways for him to stop signing off on the accord without scuttling it entirely.
Trump has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to certify Iranian compliance again after having done so twice already, declaring last month he even had made his mind up about what he'll do next. "Decertification" could lead Congress to reintroduce economic sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the deal. If that happens, Iran has threatened to walk away from the arrangement and restart activities that could take it closer to nuclear weapons.
Because the U.N. nuclear watchdog has found Iran in compliance, it's difficult for the U.S. administration to say otherwise. However, Trump and other officials, including Tillerson, have said Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement because of its testing of ballistic missiles, threats to U.S. allies in the Middle East, and support for U.S.-designated terrorist organizations and Syria's government.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Iran "is not in material breach of the agreement." At the same hearing, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he believed the deal is still in the U.S. national security interest.
For U.S. officials involved in the decision-making process, the focus on finding a way for Trump to avoid anything looking like approval for the accord has become a source of frustration. Various options are in play to resolve the problem, but none are clean solutions, according to officials.
The most likely strategy centers on Trump not certifying Iran's compliance. Below the president, diplomats and officials would then strive to manage any fallout with Tehran and U.S. allies by emphasizing that Washington isn't leaving the deal or immediately applying new nuclear sanctions on Iran. After that, Trump wouldn't have to address the certification matter again, officials said.
The Iran review law provides a potential out for Trump. The president must determine that Iran is implementing the nuclear deal and hasn't committed a "material breach," or taken action that could advance its nuclear weapons program. It also demands the president's verdict on a fourth question: whether suspending sanctions is "appropriate and proportionate," and if doing so is "vital to the national security interests of the United States."
Mattis hinted his boss may try to decertify without breaking the deal.
"You can talk about the conditions under one of those, and not walk away from the other," he said.
While Mattis described the issues of certification and upholding the deal as "different pieces," they overlap.
In January, Tillerson must waive multiple sets of sanctions on Iran for the U.S. to uphold its part of the deal. The issue of U.S. national security interests is relevant to those decisions.
As a possible solution, officials said the administration could send the question of sanctions back to Congress. But if lawmakers pass new economic penalties on Iran, the same risk to the overall deal applies.