Trump’s ultimatum could spell the end for the Iran nuclear deal
Washington - The international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme survived another challenge by US President Donald Trump but the pact could be doomed within months because of mounting differences between Washington and its European allies over new sanctions.
Trump and his European partners disagree fundamentally about the approach to the nuclear deal and issues such as Iran’s missile programme and Tehran’s aggressive policies in the Middle East, which are not covered by the nuclear pact.
Days of talks in the White House between Trump, who has called the Iran agreement the “worst deal ever,” and senior aides, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who want the United States to stick with the accord, produced a compromise that is keeping the Iran deal in place for now but foresees new sanctions. Trump told European participants of the Iran deal on January 12 that he would take the United States out of the agreement by the time he has to make another sanctions decision in the middle of May if they fail to introduce stiffer conditions for Tehran.
US law requires Trump to declare every four months whether sanctions that were suspended when the pact went into force in 2015 should be re-imposed. Every three months, Trump is obliged to tell the US Congress whether Tehran has complied with the agreement, officially known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Deadlines for both requirements converged around January 12.
Using stark language, Trump warned European countries that the agreement could implode. “I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” the president said in a statement. “This is a last chance. In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal and if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”
The US president’s stance does not go down well in Europe, where leaders called for Washington to leave the Iran deal as it is. They expressed concern that any attempt to introduce stricter criteria for Tehran could trigger an Iranian exit from the accord and a restart of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
The US Treasury Department introduced new sanctions against 14 Iranian officials and entities outside the JCPOA framework, on top of sanctions against five entities announced on January 4. Suppression of the recent unrest in Iran was one reason given for the new measures that target, among others, Sadeq Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary. Larijani is the brother of Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament. That showed that the new sanctions “go to the top of the regime,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
Officials said the Trump administration was talking with European partners, who balk at lifting the sunset clauses and at the connection between Iran’s missile programme and the nuclear deal. As the US president only addressed US allies in Europe in his statement, it was unclear how Washington would deal with Russia and China, which are also part of JCPOA and reject any change to the accord.
Western European countries involved in JCPOA, which was concluded by Iran on one side and the United States, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union on the other, are unwilling to tighten the screws on Tehran. Senior officials from the European Union, Britain, Germany and France met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels on January 11 and repeated their view that the nuclear agreement has made the world safer. Zarif said Tehran was prepared to respond if the United States walked away from JCPOA.
European leaders want the United States to leave the nuclear agreement untouched and talk with Tehran about other outstanding problems. “We agree on this approach. We want to protect (the deal) against every possible decision that might undermine it,” German Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel said. French President Emmanuel Macron called Trump to stress Europe’s demand that all parties should abide by the nuclear pact.
There was no immediate reaction by France, Britain, Germany or the European Union to Trump’s statement. Reports said EU foreign ministers would discuss the issue at a January 22 meeting in Brussels. Unilateral US sanctions would affect European companies because Washington could outlaw their activities in the United States if they conducted business with entities or individuals targeted.
Iran-sceptics in the United States say Trump has a point. “Europe may think they pulled a fast one and tied the US hands on Iran,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who works for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, said via e-mail. “But, a deal that is watered down or implemented insincerely by refusing serious snap backs or slow-rolling inspections simply isn’t going to work nor does it conform to US law.”
Rubin predicted that European companies would comply with new US sanctions, no matter what EU governments said. “European businessmen aren’t stupid and they’re not going to risk access to the US market for the sake of a quick buck in Iran,” he wrote.