Trump's diplomatic dance on Iran: What's his next step?

President Trump may yet walk away from the nuclear deal with Iran as he has long threatened. But another option is to stay in it and press US partners for changes, a solution akin to his handling of the DACA policy. He says he's made his decision.

Evan Vucci/AP
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a press briefing at the Hilton Midtown hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. Secretary Tillerson attended the highest-level meeting between US and Iranian officials since the start of the Trump administration earlier in the evening.

Like DACA, like … the Iran nuclear deal?

As he considers what to do about the 2015 international agreement with Iran that he disdains, President Trump may be about to lob the ball into the international community’s court.

Rather than pulling the United States out of the deal as he has long threatened, Mr. Trump may instead agree to stick with it at least for the coming months – and challenge the US partners in the seven-nation agreement to address what he sees as its grave shortcomings.

If he indeed takes this approach – as comments from the president’s chief foreign policy advisers and some foreign leaders who met with the president this week suggest – it would be reminiscent of Trump’s decision last month to punt to Congress the fate of the 800,000 young undocumented immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

“Trump could very well do with the Iran deal what he’s doing with DACA,” says Lawrence Korb, a defense and national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“He could keep blasting away at the deal itself without pulling out of it as a way to increase the pressure for changes to it,” he adds. “There are things he can do to try to have it both ways.”

If all this sounds maddeningly hypothetical, it’s because the president has said he has made up his mind, but won’t say how. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters, also has pointedly refused to say what Trump has decided.

After condemning the Iran nuclear accord as an “embarrassment” to the US in his United Nations speech Tuesday and continuing to blast it as one of the worst international deals the US has ever struck, Trump could appear to be preparing to pull out of the agreement.

And indeed that could still happen. Under US law the president must “certify” to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. The next certification deadline is October 15.

Rhetoric versus action

Trump has given ample indications over recent weeks that he could decide to walk away from the deal. He could also opt to neither certify nor de-certify, but essentially turn it over to Congress – to try to re-impose US sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the deal.

But some senior administration officials and regional experts close to the White House are suggesting that the president’s tough rhetoric may not mean he plans to withdraw.

Instead, Trump – who is twinning starkly martial language with diplomatic action in the North Korean nuclear crisis – may be trying to shake the international community into revisiting the Iran dossier. The aim may not be to reopen every aspect of a deal that took years of intense negotiations to reach, but to take up some of the peripheral issues – like Iran’s ballistic missile program – the president wants addressed.

“I don’t think Trump is going to pull us out of the deal, I think he’s going to screw around with it in an effort to get a broader and much more assertive international approach to Iran,” says James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who maintains close links to the White House.

“His senior aides realize the problem that if you pull out, the agreement goes on,” says Ambassador Jeffrey, now a distinguished fellow in Middle East diplomatic and military strategy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So I think the direction will be to stay in,” he adds, “but push for a broader definition of compliance.”

Not meeting 'expectations'

The UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA, continues to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and to find Iran in compliance with the deal’s terms.

But Secretary Tillerson told reporters at the UN Wednesday that while Iran may be in “technical compliance,” it is not meeting the “expectations” underpinning the deal struck between Iran and the US, the other four members of the UN Security Council, and Germany. And the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, condemned Iran for violating the spirit of the agreement, even as she cautioned that Trump’s tough rhetoric on Iran should not necessarily be taken as a decision to pull out of the deal.

Both US diplomats have recently turned to referencing the Iran deal’s preamble, which states that the agreement was struck with the goal of delivering a more “stable” and “peaceful” region, meaning the broader Middle East.

“Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region, and this is a real issue,” Tillerson said in his comments to reporters. He suggested there and in other settings that what Trump will opt for is an effort to get the parties to “revisit” the deal to add new limitations and drop others – like the sunset clause that would leave Iran free to recommence now-banned nuclear activities.

Iran is signaling its rejection of any effort to reopen the deal.

“This is a building the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a press conference Wednesday following his speech to the UN General Assembly. He called the nuclear accord a “closed issue” and added that it would collapse if the US withdraws from it.

French sympathy

But some parties to the agreement are sounding open to revisiting the deal – perhaps in an effort to stave off a Trump pullout.

At a meeting of the deal’s signatories in New York on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to sympathize with Trump’s concerns, saying the two-year-old agreement has demonstrated its shortcomings “given the growing pressure that Iran is applying in the region.”

He said the parties to the accord should consider amending it to add a ban on Iranian missile tests and to modify or drop the so-called sunset clause, which limits the duration of restrictions on Iran.

But some caution against going too far in mixing the specific issues in the nuclear accord with the broader issues of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

“Reagan kept the US adhering to the arms deals even though the Soviets went into Afghanistan,” says Mr. Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. “These are separate things.”

Jeffrey of the Washington Institute says he foresees the administration sticking with the deal for the time being but working with the more like-minded partners like the French to reopen talks and try to address the deal’s limitations.

What worries him is that the president will see his blistering rhetoric and revisiting a “bad deal” as an Iran policy – and the result will continue to be an unfettered Iran doing mischief in the Middle East.

“What I find frightening is that we continue with the war of words and end up in talks that go on and on, but that’s not containing Iran,” Jeffrey says. “Trump will be like, ‘Iran, I’ve got that covered,’ but we won’t be doing a thing about what Iran is up to in Syria and Yemen and a number of other places in the region.”

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