Trump Efforts to Reopen Negotiations on Iran Nuclear Pact Fail

The president may be stuck for now with what he’s called “one the worst deals ever.”

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: Iran President Hassan Rouhani sits before addressing the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28: Iran President Hassan Rouhani sits before addressing the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on September 28, 2015 in New York City. The ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has spawned are playing a backdrop to this years 70th annual General Assembly meeting of global leaders. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A Donald Trump administration effort to reopen negotiations on the landmark Iran nuclear agreement collapsed on Wednesday as key European powers persevered in their effort to rescue the deal from an American walkout, and Iran’s president made clear his government wouldn’t revisit the terms of the pact.

During a closed-door meeting Wednesday night of foreign ministers from Iran, the European Union, and five other big powers, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was joined by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, conceded that Iran was in full compliance with its obligations under the 2015 nuclear pact.

“There is no need to renegotiate parts of the agreement because it is concerning the nuclear program and as such is delivering,” Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, told reporters after the meeting. “We all agreed on the fact that there is no violation, that the nuclear program-related aspects, which is all agreement, is being fulfilled.

“The international community cannot afford dismantling an agreement that is working and delivering,” she added. “We already have one nuclear potential nuclear crisis — that means we do not need to go into a second one.”

Mogherini said that there was no reason why the United States couldn’t open talks with the Iranians over differences they have with other countries. She also indicated that European powers would seek to uphold the nuclear pact even in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.

Speaking to reporters at New York’s Millennium Hotel Wednesday afternoon, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that the Trump administration’s breach of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, would give Tehran a “free hand” to resume its uranium enrichment program.

“This agreement is not something that someone can touch,” Rouhani said in a press conference. “Either the JCPOA will remain as is in its entirety, or it will no longer exist. There will be absolutely no changes, no alteration, nothing done to the current framework of the current JCPOA.”

Rouhani insisted that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapons program even if the United States decided to withdraw from the agreement. But he warned that Trump’s withdrawal from the pact, which enjoys widespread international support, would only hurt the United States, while “the position of Iran throughout the world will be stronger and better than before.”

The remarks followed a day in which country after country reaffirmed its support for the nuclear deal before the United Nations General Assembly.

“I think it would be a mistake just to abandon the nuclear agreement without anything” to replace it, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council. He said the 2015 pact, which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief, was “a good one.”

Macron acknowledged that the United States had legitimate concerns about shortcomings in the Iran deal, including the fact that it doesn’t expressly prohibit Tehran from developing ballistic missiles.

The French leader, who discussed the fate of Iran’s nuclear program with U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, proposed that the key powers might open separate negotiations with the Iranian government on its ballistic missile program and discuss what happens after the key provisions of the nuclear deal expire in 2025. He also proposed that “we have an open discussion with Iran about the current situation in the region.”

Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, also came out strongly against revisiting the pact.

“I have said many times that the agreement is working fine,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “confirmed several times that Iran is fulfilling its obligations,” Mogherini said Monday.

“This deal belongs to the international community,” EU’s top diplomat said, commenting on the possible U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

The standoff comes just weeks before Trump faces a 90-day deadline to certify to Congress whether Iran is in compliance with the nuclear pact, which was negotiated under former President Barack Obama.

While Washington’s European allies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged under the deal with monitoring compliance, say Iran has strictly abided by the terms of the deal, Trump has reportedly concluded that Iran is not in compliance.

Trump frequently disparaged the agreement during his 2016 presidential campaign on the grounds that it allowed Iran to continue its ballistic missile program and provided too few guarantees that Iran will not pursue a nuclear weapons program years down the road when key provisions that limit Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium would be lifted.

In his inaugural address before the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly, Trump delivered a harsh attack on the Iranian government, calling it “an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.”

He blasted the nuclear pact as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and he hinted that he might renounce it.

Trump has received support for his hardline take on the Iranian nuclear deal from Israel and key Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, which feel that it rewarded Tehran with billions in sanctioned money to fund a number of armed groups and militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria that help it expand influence throughout the region.

Following a meeting Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump told reporters “I have decided” how to proceed. “I’ll let you know what the decision is.”

Tillerson, who has clashed with Trump in the past over the nuclear pact, told Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier late Tuesday that Trump believes this is “not a stiff enough agreement.”

Trump expressed concern that there would be insufficient restrictions in place when many of the provisions of the deal expire in 25 years.

“The president really wants to redo that deal,” Tillerson said. “He said, ‘Renegotiate it.’ We do need the support, I think, of our allies and others — the European allies and others to make the case as well to Iran that this deal really has to be revisited.” 

Iran’s leader dismissed this option, saying “in my opinion, it is not realistic,” because it took years of complex and grueling negotiations with key international powers and has been formally endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

“If anything,” Rouhani said, “we are waiting for Mr. Trump to issue an apology to the people of Iran.”


Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch