Trump’s ultimatum could spell the end for the Iran nuclear deal

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.
January 14, 2018
US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, on January 10

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.