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Trump to Chart Hawkish Course on Iran

By telling Congress the nuclear deal is not in the U.S. interest, the White House is gambling on European help to roll back Iranian influence.

President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting in October. / Douliery-Pool / Getty Images
President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting in October. / Douliery-Pool / Getty Images

President Donald Trump plans to tell Congress this month that the Iran nuclear deal is not in America’s national interest, but he will stop short of urging lawmakers to reimpose crippling economic sanctions on Tehran.

The move would put both Iran and European allies on notice that the Trump administration will insist on a new agreement with Tehran to address what it sees as shortcomings in the original 2015 deal, especially the fact that key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will end in 10 years, sources familiar with the administration’s deliberations told Foreign Policy. Additionally, the administration is concerned about Iran’s destabilizing role in the region, and especially its continued development of long-range missiles.

But such an approach represents a gamble that Iran’s leadership will bow to more pressure from the United States and carries the risk of a transatlantic rift that could backfire on Trump and play into the hands of Tehran’s hardliners, European diplomats said. Some in Europe worry that the administration’s pressure on Iran for a new deal could be a pretext for military action.

Every three months, the Trump administration is required by U.S. law to tell Congress whether Iran is abiding by the deal, and whether continuing to waive U.S. sanctions serves the country’s national security interest. The next deadline to do so is Oct. 15. Trump has grudgingly told Congress twice before that Iran is still complying with the deal, but he has recently signaled in public comments that he is now inclined to decertify Iran.

Senior figures in the administration have sent a different message to Congress. Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared to break ranks with the White House over the nuclear deal in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Asked by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) whether he believed remaining in the agreement was in the country’s national security interests, Mattis paused for several seconds and said: “Yes, senator, I do.”

The defense secretary’s comments followed similar remarks from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, who told lawmakers Iran was abiding by the nuclear agreement.

Trump has yet to set out a coherent policy on his administration’s approach to the nuclear deal or Tehran’s wider influence in the Middle East, but several sources said the administration has wrapped up a months-long policy review on Iran to coincide with the Oct. 15 deadline.

When asked about the decertification decision and the nuclear deal, the White House declined to comment. A State Department official, who asked not to be named, said: “The president has made his displeasure with the deal crystal clear,” but would not say what course of action Trump planned.

The official added: “The Trump administration is fully committed to addressing the totality of Iranian threats and malign activities and seeks to bring about a change in the Iranian regime’s behavior.”

If Trump were to tell Congress the nuclear deal is not in Washington’s interest, lawmakers would have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose the tough sanctions that were rescinded under the accord, including limits on Iranian oil exports. A return to sanctions would mean the United States would be violating the nuclear agreement and Tehran could argue that it was no longer subject to restrictions imposed on its nuclear program.

But the White House is not pushing for Congress to make such a move, and congressional staffers and lobbyists said the Republican majority will likely hold its fire. Instead, even Republican hawks such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas figure the threat of Washington pulling out the deal will put pressure on Iran to change its behavior, congressional staffers said. Decertifying Iran would be a clear signal that U.S. policy has changed, while keeping Washington’s options open.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t give some time for diplomacy to work,” Cotton said at a Council of Foreign Relations event Tuesday evening.

Describing the administration’s view, an Iran policy analyst close to the White House said officials want to “see if we can keep the deal, fix the deal, counter Iranian malign activity, and keep the Europeans on board.”

That could prove daunting. The European partners who helped negotiate the deal — Britain, France, and Germany — are wary of any step that could undercut the agreement, which they believe has pushed back any Iranian nuclear weapon at least a decade. And European diplomats are mostly skeptical of the prospects of brokering a fresh agreement with Iran without offering clear incentives to Tehran.

While they’re nervous over the administration’s plans to decertify Iran, they are relieved that Trump has chosen so far to keep the United States in the deal — despite his strident rhetoric denouncing the agreement.

The administration has said that not recertifying Iran’s compliance is not the same as leaving the deal,” said a European diplomat. Many in Europe share concerns over Iran’s activity in the region, from its use of proxy groups to fight in neighboring countries to its breakneck development of new missiles.

“We are talking with [the administration] about their concerns on the regional front and [we] have the same issues with Iran’s destabilizing role there,” the European diplomat said.

Britain, France, and Germany have dismissed the idea of reopening the accord, but Paris and London have suggested they would be open to possible talks for a new follow-up agreement that would address the perceived shortcomings of the July 2015 deal.

U.S. officials say the 10-year limit on some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, its growing ballistic missile arsenal, and Tehran’s reluctance to allow inspections at military sites are the three main “gaps” in the agreement that need to be addressed in any follow-up deal.

During talks between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump and top officials last month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the two sides discussed “starting, at some point, within the context of this agreement, talks with the Iranians on the sunset clause and what comes next,” British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch said at an Atlantic Council event last month.

Under the current agreement, some restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear work expire in 10 years or more. French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated his government would be open to addressing that timeline, as well as tackling Iran’s expanding ballistic missile program.

Curbing Iran’s non-nuclear threats has been the focus of senior administration officials carrying out the Iran policy review, especially Tehran’s support for proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, its cyber activities, its missile tests flouting U.N. resolutions, and its threats to possibly close the strategic Strait of Hormuz and other key waterways.

Iran’s development of long-range missiles, in particular, have U.S. defense officials worried. Coupled with the expiration of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by 2025, a ramped-up missile program would represent a serious danger, a senior Pentagon official told FP.

“Ten years from now,” the official said, “they could restore their nuclear program, they have a long-range ballistic missile, and now they’re a threat to the U.S. homeland.”

To push back against Iran’s regional ambitions, the administration plans to target Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps through economic pressure and other means, including covert action backed by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, sources said.

“My sense is Pompeo is doing a lot more on that front than has been done in a long while,” one source close to the White House said.

The New York Times reported in June that the CIA had named Michael D’Andrea to manage the agency’s Iran operations. D’Andrea attained near-legendary status for his role overseeing the manhunt for al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden and U.S. drone strikes against Islamist extremists.

The Trump administration’s plans to get tougher with Iran will be welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, he echoed Republican hawks in Congress, saying the agreement should be amended or abandoned. “Fix it or nix it,” he said.

But some current and former senior officials in Israel have argued for a more prudent approach. A former chief of Israel’s military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, called for preserving the nuclear deal in a newspaper commentary last month, arguing there were no viable alternatives immediately available.

And Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Uzi Arad, told FP the United States and its allies should seek to bolster the mandatory inspections regime in the nuclear agreement, including gaining access to suspected military sites.

“This is the line of action that has to be improved, but to do it, you yourself must be consistent in support of the agreement. And you cannot undercut your own position, directly or indirectly,” said Arad, who met with lawmakers this week in a visit to Washington.

Former Obama administration officials and European diplomats said the only way to win more concessions from Iran on its nuclear or its missile programs would be to offer Tehran carrots, rather than simply threatening more punitive sanctions. So far, the Trump administration has only spoken of coercive measures to get its way with Iran. And top Republican lawmakers who are willing to give the administration time to pressure Iran aren’t averse to carrying a big stick.

If efforts to secure a new deal fail and the current agreement collapses, Sen. Cotton said the United States must be prepared to take military action if necessary. History, he said, shows that Iran has backed down in the face of credible threats of military force.

“There are many precedents for calibrated strikes that achieve our objectives,” Cotton said.

FP‘s Paul McLeary and Emily Tamkin contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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