Trump Threatens to Nuke Iran Deal Unless Congress, Allies Get Tougher With Tehran

Now lawmakers will have to decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions on Iran.

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Oct. 11. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Oct. 11. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump said Friday he would no longer certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in America’s interest and warned he could eventually abandon the agreement if Tehran failed to meet an array of restrictions.

The long-awaited move threatens to rupture relations with European allies and opens the door to a potential confrontation with Iran at a moment when thousands of U.S. troops are deployed in neighboring Iraq.

Hours after the president announced his stance, European leaders warned Trump’s decision could lead to the collapse of the deal, removing the strict limits Iran currently has on its nuclear-weapons program. And Asian governments worry that unilaterally backing away from the Iran pact could cripple hopes of a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

In a speech, Trump stopped short of announcing an immediate withdrawal from the 2015 accord, which he had promised during his presidential campaign. But in refusing to certify that Iran is complying with the deal, the administration is passing the buck to Congress, which will have to decide whether to reintroduce economic sanctions that were lifted as part of the agreement.

“We cannot and will not make this certification,” Trump said. He threatened to torpedo the entire deal unless U.S. lawmakers and world powers force Iran to swallow wide-ranging restrictions on everything from its missile program to its use of proxy forces in regional conflicts.

“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” he said.

Trump said that the nuclear deal failed to address Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, including its support for terrorism and its development of an advanced missile program. To address those challenges, the White House coupled the announcement with the introduction of a plan to roll back Iran’s influence in the Middle East. The strategy focuses on curbing Iran’s support for militants, strengthening Washington’s regional alliances, and ratcheting up pressure on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite security force.

Signaling the more confrontational stance, the Treasury Department said it would label the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Previously, the U.S. government had only designated the guard’s paramilitary wing, the Quds Force, for sanctions. But the president chose not to place the Revolutionary Guard on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, as it would have posed complications for U.S. troops deployed near Iranian military forces in Iraq.

Trump called on Congress to strengthen the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), the domestic law that calls for the president to decide whether to recertify the deal every 90 days. Administration officials said the change in course is needed to address “sunset” provisions in the nuclear deal, including key restrictions on uranium enrichment and other activities that expire in 10 years or more.

Officials want the law revised to include “trigger points” that, if crossed, would automatically reintroduce sanctions on Iran.

“If Iran crosses any of these trigger points, the sanctions automatically go back in place,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in a briefing Thursday evening.

Those triggers could include refusing to extend limits on nuclear fuel production, more ballistic missile launches, or a determination by U.S. spy agencies that Iran is less than a year away from building an atomic bomb.

But amending the legislation would require 60 votes in the Senate — an unlikely prospect, since most Democrats have slammed Trump’s decision.

Securing support in Congress for revising the INARA will be an uphill battle, Tillerson told reporters Thursday. “I don’t want to suggest to you that this is a slam-dunk on the Hill — it’s not.”

But securing support internationally may be even tougher. The administration hopes the threat of action will spur the pact’s other signatories to back a tougher Iran agreement. But Trump’s decision runs against the assessment of every major U.S. intelligence agency as well as nearly all U.S. allies, who maintain that Iran is abiding by the terms of the accord.

After Trump’s speech, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany issued an extraordinary joint statement, expressing concern over “the possible implications” of the president’s decision. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron said their countries were committed to the nuclear accord and that its preservation was “in our shared national security interest.”

“The nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy and was a major step towards ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is not diverted for military purposes,” they said.

The leaders called on the Trump administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the United States and its allies “before taking any steps that might undermine the [nuclear deal], such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.”

On Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a statement that the proposed legislation would not conflict with the Iran deal and would instead “halt Iran’s nuclear program.” Corker presented it as an opportunity to “establish a U.S. policy on Iran that is backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress” and “empower a diplomatic push to unify our allies behind a common Iran policy.”

On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned that decertifying the deal would isolate the United States and “drive us Europeans into a common position with Russia and China against the USA.”

“If President Trump establishes himself as the Great Dealbreaker – which is ongoing! – who will wish to make any deals with his US?” Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister and prime minister, tweeted on Friday.

As Trump toyed for months with killing the deal, its fate sparked a fierce debate in Washington between those who defended the accord as a way to hamstring Iran’s nuclear weapons development and those eager to rein in Iran’s ambitions more broadly. While the debate played out, the administration’s constant seesawing unnerved allies in Europe.

“To the extent the rest of the world is watching this soap opera play out in Washington … it really does telegraph how limited our influence is going to be on key issues like this in the future,” Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution told Foreign Policy.

As the country most at risk from a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel will applaud Trump’s decision. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vehemently opposed the agreement in 2015, said in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last month that the United States should “fix it or nix it.” But some prominent Israeli figures and former security officials, including the former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, argued it would be better to adjust the deal rather than scuttle it.

“It seems to me that the less risky approach is to build on the existing agreement, among other reasons because it does set concrete limitations on the Iranians,” said Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security advisor. A career officer in Mossad, Arad visited Washington last week to appeal to lawmakers to keep the deal in place.

Iran has blasted the administration’s reasons for decertification and ruled out reopening negotiations. Trump’s attacks on the deal have even managed to bring together the country’s squabbling hard-liners, who originally opposed the deal as an unacceptable compromise, and more pragmatic figures like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who supported it.

“We have achieved benefits during the nuclear talks and the nuclear agreement, which are irreversible,” said Rouhani on Oct. 7. “No one can roll them back, neither Trump nor 10 other Trumps.” Rouhani was scheduled to address Trump’s decision later Friday.

FP’s Paul McLeary and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed to this story.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images


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

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin