The Trump administration next week is expected to “decertify” the Iran nuclear agreement, telling Congress the 2015 deal no longer serves U.S. national security interests, sources tells ABC News.
President Donald Trump’s top U.S. military officials and international inspectors monitoring implementation of the deal have all said Iran is in technical compliance. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went even further this week, saying the deal is still in the interest of U.S. national security.
But the president himself remains adamant that the Islamic republic is violating the “spirit” of the deal and has directed aides to seek tougher enforcement of Iran’s nuclear activities and new sanctions for its destabilizing behavior in the region.
“The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed and chaos across the middle east,” Trump said Thursday night at a dinner with military leaders at the White House. “That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions. They have not lived up to the spirit of their agreement.”
A decision to not certify the landmark nuclear deal would trigger a 60-day congressional review period when U.S. lawmakers must decide whether or not to “snap back” the sanctions on Iran that were suspended in 2015 — a move that would officially end U.S. participation in the agreement.
U.S. officials told ABC News the president’s objective in decertifying the deal would be to raise the temperature on Iran, and with the threat of restoring old sanctions and imposing new ones — as well as the threat of military force — get the regime to accept fixes to the deal.
Iranian officials have ruled out any renegotiation of the deal, which was negotiated jointly with the U.S., China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, Germany and the EU.
“Either the [nuclear agreement] will remain as-is, in its entirety, or it will no longer exist,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said last month at the United Nations. “There will be absolutely no changes, no alterations, nothing done to the current framework.”
Several sources inside and out of the administration who are familiar with the White House’s plans cautioned that nothing is decided until the president speaks publicly. The Associated Press reported this week that Trump plans to announce his decision on the Iran deal next week.
“The administration has not yet determined how it will handle the upcoming certification deadline, but the president is leaning toward declining to certify the Iran nuclear deal by Oct. 15,” a U.S. official told ABC News.
“The president’s asked his national security team to present him with a comprehensive policy plan for Iran, that president has approved that plan, and he looks forward to presenting it to the American people soon.”
Trump told reporters last month he had “decided” how to proceed on the Iran deal but declined to characterize his position at the time.
The expected move to decertify would not itself destroy the deal because the concept of certification is only a requirement of U.S. law. Instead, administration officials believe the threat of new sanctions or military strikes would be used as leverage, according to those familiar with their plans.
The White House is expected to seek changes to the deal — or new ancillary legislation — that would extend or eliminate the so-called “sunset provisions,” where limits on the amount of uranium Iran is allowed to enrich expire; imposing penalties or limits for Iran’s ballistic missile program; guaranteeing inspection of all potential nuclear sites, including military sites which Iran claims are not part of the agreement; and perhaps even creating a stronger enforcement mechanism for potential breaches of the deal.
Publicly, members of the Trump administration and its allies — from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, to Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to Defense Secretary Mattis — have all hinted at such an approach.
Critics say this path does nothing to give the U.S. leverage against Iran, instead alienating America from its European allies who believe the deal is working. European allies have indicated a willingness to “build” on the deal, but are publicly opposed to doing anything to tear it up.
“If President Trump proceeds as has been reported, it will set the United States on a dangerous path to re-impose nuclear sanctions on Iran,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “and ironically result in the United States being the country that breaks the international commitments it made.”
If the Congress votes to re-impose nuclear sanctions on Iran, it would constitute a “material breach” of the agreement, which could effectively destroy the accord.
Iran has threatened to pull out if this happens and begin enriching uranium. But they could also remain a party to the accord, further isolating the U.S. and driving a wedge between it and its allies.
Trump faces an Oct. 15 deadline for certification, as the executive branch does every 90 days under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Sources say the administration is also considering, in conjunction with some members of Congress, trying to eliminate this requirement so they don’t have to keep certifying the deal in the future.