Trump to rebuke Iran but won't call for sanctions that threaten nuclear deal

  • European officials relieved Trump won’t urge reimposition of sanctions
  • US president to ask Congress to amend 2015 legislation on Iran

Donald Trump is expected to disavow the Iran nuclear deal in a speech denouncing the government in Tehran, but he will not call for the US to abandon the agreement, according to officials briefed on the president’s intentions.

In his speech on Friday, Trump will unveil what he will describe as a new, tougher strategy against Iran, and blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the rise of Iranian influence across the Middle East.

He will impose fresh sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, propose measures to punish Tehran for its ballistic missile programme and call for Congress to pass legislation that will trigger automatic sanctions and potentially a US exit from the nuclear agreement in the event of future Iranian transgressions.

European officials expressed relief that the White House speech did not appear to represent an immediate US abrogation of the 2015 deal.

The genesis of Trump’s particular antipathy to Iran is hard to pin down.  Before entering office he had been sceptical of Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. But during the 2016 election campaign all his closest foreign policy advisors, such as Michael Flynn, shared a worldview that portrays Iran as an uniquely malign actor in the Middle East and beyond. After the election, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were successful in capturing the ear of Trump and his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner.

Since Trump signalled in recent months that he did not want to constantly certify to Congress a deal that he detested, European diplomats have been lobbying intensively in Washington to stop the US walking out of the accord entirely.

“Of all the places it could have been on the spectrum, this is very much at the better end,” one European official said. However, Trump’s tougher stance towards Iran is likely to cause friction. A White House statement said: “The United States’ new Iran strategy focuses on neutralizing the government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.

“We will work to deny the Iranian regime – and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – funding for its malign activities, and oppose IRGC activities that extort the wealth of the Iranian people. We will counter threats to the United States and our allies from ballistic missiles and other asymmetric weapons.”

Trump will say the steps Iran has taken as its part of the deal are not proportionate to the sanctions relief the country has been granted.

He will not ask Congress to reimpose sanctions, which probably would have caused the collapse of the 2015 agreement. Instead, he will recommend that Congress amends its own legislation so that Iranian infringements of the deal, and potentially other actions outside the scope of the agreement, would automatically trigger the reimposition of those sanctions.

Trump’s speech will include a list of allegations of malign Iranian behaviour, focusing on its ballistic missile programme, its role in propping up the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its support for the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah.

Trump will impose sanctions on IRGC members, focused on its support of militant groups abroad, but will not go as far as listing the IRGC as a terrorist group.

The greatest European fear was that Trump would torpedo the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by reimposing sanctions or calling on Congress to do so. That does not appear be Trump’s plan, although officials cautioned he could change his mind at the last moment.

Instead, the president will say his administration is willing to work with Congress and US allies to fix the “flaws” in the agreement, and vow to impose more vigorous verification of Iranian compliance.

“In effect, he is saying if Iran goes one millilitre over the limits in the JCPOA, the US will leave. There will be no flexibility,” a senior official said.

The White House statement alleged that “in regard to JCPOA itself, the Iranian regime has displayed a disturbing pattern of behaviour, seeking to exploit loopholes and test the international community’s resolve”.

The statement noted that Iranian military leaders had vowed to prevent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of military sites, which it said violated Iran’s international commitments.

“This behaviour cannot be tolerated; the deal must be strictly enforced, and the IAEA must fully utilise its inspection authorities,” the statement said.

Trump will ask Congress to amend 2015 legislation known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) to insert automatic triggers for the reimposition of sanctions and to change a clause that requires him to certify the agreement every 90 days, a source of political embarrassment as he has repeatedly denounced it as the “worst deal ever”.

Under a new version being negotiated with Congress, the president would have to endorse the deal less frequently but the US intelligence community would have to assess whether Iran is carrying out covert activity in facilities not visited by the IAEA.

Under the Obama administration, Iran’s stockpile of heavy water (which can be used in certain nuclear reactors) twice went above the agreed limits, although according to the latest report by the IAEA, it is now well below that benchmark. Trump will signal he will not be so accommodating.

The other signatories to the JCPOA – the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, have said it is not realistic to try to renegotiate its terms. However, the European signatories have said they are ready to discuss how it can be bolstered by stiffer measures aimed at Iran’s missile programme, and what nuclear agreement might follow the JCPOA.


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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