Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, European allies have worried he will fulfill his campaign promise and pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump’s national security cabinet has a different idea. US officials tell me that a new strategy on the agreement is ready for the president’s approval. Instead of blowing it apart, the plan is to make it stronger.
The idea can be summed up as “waive, decertify and fix.” On Sept. 14, Trump is expected to waive the crippling sanctions on Iran’s banks and oil exports that were suspended as a condition of the 2015 nuclear bargain known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A law passed by Congress in 2015 requires the president to make a decision on those sanctions every 120 days. Trump waived the sanctions in May and is expected to do so again.
That’s the carrot for the Europeans. The stick will be that Trump is also expected to lay out the US government’s concerns with the 2015 nuclear deal. It has three major flaws, according to US officials. These are the sunset provisions that lift limits on elements like Iranian stockpiles of low-enriched uranium between 2025 and 2030; the failure of the deal to prohibit Iran’s development of ballistic missiles; and the weak provisions on inspections of suspected Iranian military sites.
This is important because the 2015 legislation that requires the secretary of state to certify Iranian compliance provides a lot of flexibility. As Trump‘s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, explained in a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, Trump can decertify Iranian compliance if he deems the deal does not advance the US national interest, even if Iran is technically obeying the letter of the agreement. As of now, US officials tell me Trump is planning to rule Iran is out of compliance, in part because it continues to test ballistic missiles.
Trump’s decertification would not kill the nuclear deal. Instead it would send the matter to the US Congress, which could choose to vote to reimpose the crippling sanctions Trump is expected to waive this week. Trump will have to decide on certifying Iran by Oct. 15.
The timing of the waiver and the deadline for certification creates a diplomatic window. Next week the UN General Assembly will meet in New York, and Trump is expected to make the case to his counterparts from the UK and France to persuade Germany to support reopening negotiations on the deal. (The 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated with Iran by the US and those three partners, plus the European Union, Russia and China.)
With the Oct. 15 deadline looming over the UN General Assembly, Trump will have some leverage with the Europeans who support the deal and whose banks and energy companies stand to make deals in Iran now that sanctions are lifted. If the US Congress reimposes the crippling sanctions, European investors would have to choose between doing business with the US and doing business with Iran.
“The real fear that Donald Trump will walk away from the nuclear deal is terrifying Europeans,” Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me. “This opens up potential space to finally address Barack Obama‘s fatally flawed agreement and to break the paralysis that has been America’s Iran policy for the last eight years.”
Already the French and British seem open to it. Two US diplomats told me this week that their counterparts from London and Paris have signaled they would consider pressuring Iran to address some of the deal’s flaws. French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne last month told reporters that President Emmanuel Macron “on Aug. 29 indicated that the Vienna accord could be supplemented by work for the post-2025 period (and) by an indispensable work on the use of ballistic missiles.”
If anything Trump has proven to be unpredictable. If he rejects the strategy of his national security team, it would not be the first time. Trump waited three months before approving a plan for the Afghanistan war.
But the proposal fits very much with Trump’s personality. As he counsels in his book, “Art of the Deal:” “Leverage, don’t make deals without it.”
In this case Trump has created leverage by threatening to withdraw the US from the nuclear bargain negotiated by his predecessor. It remains to be seen whether he can turn that leverage into a better Iran deal.
By Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg columnist. -- Ed.