Trump disavows Iran nuclear deal, but doesn’t scrap it

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Trump speaks about the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump announced on Friday (Oct 13) his decision to disavow the Iran nuclear agreement, threatening to leave the deal altogether if it was not amended to permanently block Teheran from building nuclear weapons or intercontinental missiles.

But even as he delivered a fire-breathing indictment of the Iranian government's activities around the Middle East, he stopped short of unravelling the agreement reached by former President Barack Obama two years ago.

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"We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more chaos, the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakout," Trump declared at the White House in a speech that was intended to define a broad strategy for confronting Iran.

Trump's decision not to certify that Iran was complying with all terms of the agreement came after a fierce debate inside the administration, according to a senior official familiar with the discussions and who agreed to describe them on the condition of anonymity.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis argued that it was in the national security interests of the United States to keep the deal's constraints on Iran. The two men succeeded, over time, in persuading Trump not to immediately scrap the accord, despite his campaign promise to do so.

Trump, in declaring his intention not to certify Iran's compliance with the deal, essentially kicked to Congress a decision about whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran and blow up the agreement.

His aides, however, insisted that was not the goal, and that they instead wanted Congress to enact legislation defining what would incite the US to reimpose sanctions.

The President listed three such triggers - the deployment of an intercontinental ballistic missile by Iran, Iran's refusal to negotiate an extension of the deal's existing constraint on its nuclear activities and evidence that Iran could manufacture a bomb in less than 12 months. Any of those could prompt the US to walk away from the deal.

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

Persuading the allies to renegotiate the deal is a far-fetched goal. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany quickly issued a joint statement urging the US to adhere to the agreement, which they hailed as "the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy".

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani said his country would consider "no amendment whatsoever" to the deal.

Enacting new legislation on Iran would require 60 votes in the Senate, meaning Republicans would need to pick up the support of at least eight Democrats. Senate Democrats had urged Trump not to withhold certification, and they are unlikely to agree to legislation without assurances that the deal will remain intact.

Trump's scalding critique of the nuclear deal as "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into" echoed the language he used during his presidential campaign. But he also acknowledged the obstacles to ripping it up.

"What's done is done," Trump said, "and that's why we are where we are."

The President seemed determined to erase any residual hope that the nuclear deal might form the basis of a new relationship between the US and Iran. His speech, from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, was perhaps the most hostile of any American leader towards Iran since President George W. Bush placed the country on his "axis of evil" in 2002.

Trump recited a litany of misdeeds by Iran going back to the 1979 hostage crisis and described it as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taleban.

He also accused the country of dealing with North Korea, a reference to Pyongyang's long history of selling missile technology to Iran, and said he had asked the nation's intelligence agencies to investigate whether the relationship went further.

His tone made clear that he has no interest in what, for the Obama administration, was the biggest gamble of the accord: to provide the basis for two long time adversaries to find other ways to cooperate. He also suggested that Iran would never change.

"Given the regime's murderous past and present, we should not take lightly its sinister vision for the future," the President said. "The regime's two favourite chants are 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel'."

The nuclear deal is the latest international agreement that Trump has tried to exit, amend or water down, including the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The closest analogy to this deal may be Nafta, the trade agreement that Trump once threatened to rip up and is now undergoing a painstaking renegotiation.

Critics said Trump risked isolating the US diplomatically and giving up the deal's hard-won gains, including intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities.

The angriest voice belonged to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent several years negotiating the accord that Trump denounced. "It is very, very poor, nonstrategic diplomacy," Kerry said in an interview, his voice rising.

Pointing out that "you cannot unilaterally reset the terms of the deal," he said the agreement "gives us a quarter-century of absolute accountability" and assured that "the minute we see the stockpile going up, the questions and red flags will go up like crazy. And 15 or 25 years from now, we still have the same military options we have today."

"If you want to have your war, Donald Trump," Kerry said, "you can have it in 20 years."

Congress is deeply divided on the Iran deal, and getting it to agree on additional legislation could prove difficult. While some Republicans are eager to undermine the deal, Democrats are equally determined to preserve what they view as another legacy of the Obama administration that Trump is trying to dismantle.

"We will not buy into the false premise that it is Congress' role to legislate solutions to problems of his own making," said Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the committee, released a potential blueprint for imposing an automatic return of sanctions if Iran was believed to be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within a year, or if it violated other restrictions. He worked on the proposal with White House officials and Senator Tom Cotton, a hard-liner on Iran, and predicted it could win bipartisan support.

It suggests that Corker's bitter personal feud with Trump will not obstruct cooperation on this issue. Corker, acknowledging he had little choice but to "deal with the circumstances as they are", signalled that he would work to try to find points of compromise - possibly including assurance that the deal would not simply be ripped up by the President.

"You're going to see all of this evolve in daylight," he told reporters. Decertification does not, by itself, affect the US obligation to adhere to the deal, including the lifting of some economic sanctions.

Since becoming President, Trump has twice reluctantly certified the agreement. But administration officials concluded that he could not bring himself to do that every 90 days, even if the judgment of nuclear inspectors and his own intelligence agencies was that Iran was in compliance. So they tried to find a solution that would allow Trump to signal his disapproval of the deal without putting the US in the position of being the first signatory to violate it. That solution was to declare that the suspension of sanctions was not "appropriate and proportionate" to the steps that Iran has taken to end its illicit nuclear activities.

That formulation is narrower than declaring that the agreement is no longer in the nation's national security interests, and administration officials said it was chosen carefully to avoid putting Trump in a box the next time he had to decide whether to waive sanctions against Iran.

While Trump's speech was described beforehand by his aides as a description of a broad new initiative to push back on Iran, he gave little description of what that would be.

Trump did say the US would increase pressure on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which he described as the "supreme leader's corrupt personal terror force and militia". The Treasury Department announced it would designate the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group, expanding an existing designation of the Quds Force, the corps' paramilitary wing.

But Trump stopped short of putting it on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organisations. Such a designation, Tillerson said, would impede military operations in which US and Iranian forces found themselves on the same battlefield - presumably fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.

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