Rex Tillerson toughens tone on Iran after US confirms nuclear deal compliance

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration is reviewing ways to counter challenges posed by Teheran.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration is reviewing ways to counter challenges posed by Teheran.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described a landmark Iran nuclear deal as a failure on Wednesday (April 19), only hours after the State Department said Teheran was complying with its terms.

But the top US diplomat stopped short of threatening to jettison the 2015 agreement that was brokered by world powers, or say whether the Trump administration would punish Iran with new sanctions.

The whiplash left Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had universally excoriated the agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program and voted against its implementation, uncertain how to respond. It architects, however, said they were cautiously optimistic that the deal would stay in place.

The nuclear deal "fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran," Tillerson said. "It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state."

He said that Iran continued to threaten the United States and the rest of the world, and announced that the Trump administration is reviewing ways to counter challenges posed by Teheran.

It was an attempt to clarify a State Department certification, issued shortly before a midnight deadline on Tuesday, that said Iran was complying with the nuclear agreement that also eased crippling international sanctions against the Islamic republic's economy.

During the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump denounced the agreement as "the worst deal ever," and Vice-President Mike Pence promised to rip it up.

In a hastily called news conference at the State Department on Wednesday, Tillerson likened Iran to North Korea, whose nuclear weaponry and burgeoning missile technology is what the administration now believes is the gravest risk to world peace and security.

Pence visited Seoul, South Korea, this week to declare that the United States was united with its allies to stem North Korea's threat.

The Iran deal "represents the same failed approach to the past that brought us to the current imminent threat that we face from North Korea," Tillerson told reporters.

"The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran. The evidence is clear: Iran's provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world."

Once the National Security Council completes its review of the nuclear deal, Tillerson said, "we will meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction."

The enigmatic remarks left top Republicans on Capitol Hill nonplused. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican -Arkansas, who led congressional opposition to the Iran deal, said in a statement that the administration's "certification is shaky, and it doesn't mean that the intentions behind Iran's nuclear program are benign."

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration appeared to be preparing a tougher line against Iran.

"Secretary Tillerson made clear that regardless of Iran's technical compliance with the nuclear deal, the administration is under no illusion about the continued threat from Teheran and is prepared to work closely with Congress to push back," Corker said in a statement on Wednesday.

Tuesday's certification extends sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for continued constraints on its nuclear program. US sanctions, as approved by Congress, were suspended instead of revoked; they can be reimposed with the stroke of a presidential pen.

The Trump administration has given itself 90 days to complete its review, but will need to make a series of decisions in coming weeks about whether to continue its support of the deal, which was also brokered with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Those governments, along with representatives of the United States and

Iran, will meet next week in Vienna to review the pact's progress. Trump faces a mid-May deadline, as imposed by Congress, to decide whether to continue the suspension of sanctions. Backing away from the agreement would spur enormous consternation across Europe and in Moscow.

In their first congratulatory phone calls to Trump after his electoral victory, both President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany stressed the need to keep the Iran deal in place. And after her first meeting with Tillerson in February, Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign minister, said the Trump administration pledged "to stick to the full strict implementation of the agreement in all its parts."

Analysts and former government officials said it was unlikely the Trump administration would renounce the Iran agreement.

"I'm glad this deal has held up to this point, and I hope it continues to hold up," said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state who was deeply involved in negotiating terms of the deal during the Obama administration.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was involved in Iran policy under President Barack Obama, said it was "pretty much a foregone conclusion" that Trump would keep the nuclear agreement in place.

Still, the administration has sought since its first days in office to ratchet up pressure on Iran. In January, before he resigned, Michael Flynn, then the national security adviser, walked into the White House briefing room and declared that the administration was "officially putting Iran on notice" after it launched a ballistic missile.