The Post’s Alan Sipress and Karen DeYoung explain how President Trump’s decision might affect an already tense Middle East.
While the deal itself contains no provisions for withdrawal, Iran has threatened to reactivate its nuclear program if the United States reneges on any of its obligations under the pact’s terms.
France and Germany, whose leaders visited Washington in recent weeks to appeal to Trump, have warned that nullification of the agreement could lead to all-out war in the Middle East. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in Washington on Monday, said that as far as he knows, the administration has no clear “Plan B” for what to do next.
Trump tweeted Monday that he would announce his decision at 2 p.m. Tuesday. He is free to reimpose all U.S. sanctions, and even announce new ones. But he is expected to stop short of reneging on the deal altogether. Instead, he will address a portion of the wide range of sanctions that were waived when the deal was first implemented, while leaving in limbo other waivers that are due in July.
The affected sanctions, imposed by Congress in 2012, require other countries to reduce Iranian oil imports or risk U.S. sanctions on their banks and their ability to conduct Iran-related financial transactions. Waivers on those sanctions must be signed every 120 days, and the next deadline is Saturday.
Trump is unlikely to specify how the United States will treat the complex set of legal designations on banks, companies and people affected by the import waiver, officials said. The Treasury Department has been drawing contingency plans, and it could take months for the measures to be fully reimposed.
But “you could immediately see countries start to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil,” said Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who headed the sanctions team during negotiations on the agreement. Countries, and the companies that actually buy and sell oil, could say, “Let’s not bank on this all turning out okay,” he said.
The Iranian economy has been in crisis mode for much of this year, with the currency, the rial, losing more than a third of its value, despite an increase in oil production and sales. Iran has long alleged that the United States has violated the deal by continuing to make it difficult for U.S. and international companies to invest there, despite the removal of sanctions.
Under the terms of the nuclear deal — negotiated under President Barack Obama, along with the three European allies, Russia and China — Tehran agreed to sharply curtail the quantity and the quality of enriched uranium it produced for the next 15 years. It shut down most of its nuclear production facilities and shipped most of its stored fuel out of the country. In return, nuclear-related international economic sanctions were lifted, and the United States agreed to activate waiver provisions for its unilateral sanctions.
Officials, who spoke about the upcoming announcement on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Trump will use the threat of further measures as leverage on both the Europeans and Iran itself.
Trump, who criticized the Iran deal throughout his presidential campaign, said in January that the United States would “withdraw” unless the agreement was rewritten to address his concerns. They included its sunset and verification provisions; Iran’s separate ballistic missile development and testing programs; and Iranian support for terrorism and interference in regional conflicts, such as in Syria and Yemen.
U.S. regional allies, led by Israel and Saudi Arabia, strongly supported his position. They said Iran threatened their own national security.
Britain, France and Germany, while saying they shared Trump’s concerns, noted that Iran had not violated the nuclear accord and said the world was better off keeping the deal in place while other worries were separately addressed. Over the past several months, the three have agreed to take new measures, including sanctions, to crack down on Iran’s regional activities and its missile program.
But despite their promises and appeals — and statements of support by Trump’s own military advisers and a number of U.S. lawmakers who previously had objected to the deal — the Europeans were unable to persuade the president. His tough stand has been bolstered by new members of his national security team, including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both long-standing opponents of the agreement.
In his announcement, Trump is expected to describe the action as one element of a tougher position on Iran, although it remained unclear whether he will propose any additional policy elements to deal with Iran’s regional activities and ballistic missiles.
He will cite Iranian documents about a 1990s-era covert nuclear weapons project as proof that Iran lied about the extent of its program, two people familiar with discussions about the decision said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled the documents last week.
The Israeli presentation was widely criticized as a publicity stunt designed to influence U.S. public opinion with information that was widely known and had provided the impetus for the negotiations in the first place. The U.S. intelligence community has said the weapons program ended in 2003.
In a tweet Monday, Trump alleged that John F. Kerry, who led Obama’s negotiating team while serving as secretary of state, was engaging in “possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy,” referring to a Boston Globe report that Kerry was consulting with the European allies.
Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk-analysis firm, said a withdrawal from the Iran deal would be the “biggest slap in the face to date to U.S. allies,” more significant than withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations and the Paris climate accord, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on Japan and other nations.
Trump’s decision comes weeks before he is expected to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a bid to curb that nation’s nuclear weapons program. Some foreign policy experts said that canceling the Iran deal could send a message to Kim’s regime that the United States is an unreliable negotiating partner.
But Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a conference Monday that the Trump White House would use a withdrawal to “send the signal that an Iran deal is not good enough for North Korea — that they need to do better than an Iran deal.”
“In terms of how the North Koreans would take it, I don’t think they’d take it one way or the other,” Cha said. “I don’t think they’d see it as negative or positive, because they think they’re different from everybody else, anyway.”