President Trump plans to demand this week that the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programs be revised to make it stronger. He’ll claim that Iran isn’t complying with the 2015 pact, which he has called “the worst deal ever negotiated.” His language will be Trumpian and tough, intended to show that he’s keeping his campaign promise to “rip the deal up.” But Trump isn’t ripping it up. Instead, he’s climbing down — slowly, awkwardly, reluctantly — from a position that made no sense.
In formal terms, Trump is refusing to “certify” that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, which requires Tehran to reduce its holdings of enriched uranium and allow international inspectors into its facilities.
But Iran is, in fact, complying with the agreement, as even U.S. officials acknowledge. The main U.S. complaint is that Iran has violated the “spirit” of the deal by engaging in non-nuclear activities, including missile research, which the agreement doesn’t cover.
Even more awkwardly, Trump’s closest aides want the deal to remain in force. Last week, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told a Senate hearing that it’s in the national interest to keep the agreement alive.
The reason is simple: Whatever its flaws, the deal has stopped Iran from building a nuclear weapon for at least 10 years. If the United States walks away from the agreement, Iran’s supreme leader would be free to restart uranium enrichment — and most other countries would blame Trump, not Iran.
Trump aides have therefore quietly asked Congress not to reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran. And instead of dismantling the deal, Mattis and other advisors have given Trump an alternative: Try to fix it.
They’ve listed changes they’d like to see, including more intrusive inspections and longer “sunset” provisions. (The current deal lifts the ceiling on low-enriched uranium and allows almost unrestricted enrichment beginning in 2030.)
They also want new limits on Iran’s ballistic missile effort and international action against pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Syria and other countries.
Trump aides have floated the idea of demanding a formal “renegotiation” of the 2015 deal, in keeping with language Trump occasionally used during the campaign. But renegotiation isn’t going to happen. All the other countries in the agreement — including U.S. allies Britain, France and Germany — have said it’s not feasible.
Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron has offered what some officials call a “third way”: new negotiations to extend the nuclear deal’s sunset provisions and impose new limits on Iran’s missile development, plus joint Western action against pro-Iranian proxy forces in the Middle East.
Those are ideas with broad support in Europe as well as Washington. Trump and his aides are actually right when they say the 2015 pact should be strengthened. Even the Obama administration officials who negotiated the deal acknowledge that it didn’t settle every U.S. concern.
Here’s a best-case scenario: After Trump announces his decision, Congress, instead of demanding new sanctions, endorses negotiations to improve the deal, perhaps with additional sanctions authority to give the president more leverage. Trump appoints a tough, high-powered special envoy to pursue negotiations; someone like Dennis Ross, who worked on the Middle East for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
Once talks are under way, President Trump can announce that he’s accomplished the moral equivalent of renegotiation, and declare at least partial victory.
That would put the U.S. confrontation with Iran in a category with other Trump foreign policy positions that turned out to contain more bluster than action: his threats to walk away from U.S. obligations to NATO, for example, and his promise to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (which, in Trump’s mind, is another “worst deal ever negotiated”).
There are plenty of ways that benign outcome could be derailed.
Republicans in Congress could bow to pressure from hard-liners and impose new nuclear sanctions (although that looks unlikely; even Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a noted hawk, has agreed to hold off).
Other countries could balk. Trump is deeply unpopular in Europe. Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin may not be in the mood to help an American president who has turned out to be an unreliable friend.
Any negotiations to extend the deal will be multinational, and they’ll require compromise — two words that rarely apply to Trump’s bluster-based diplomacy.
The president will grow impatient. He’ll still have to report to Congress every 90 days. He’ll still have the authority to reimpose sanctions any time he wants. (He doesn’t need Congress’ approval for that, even now.)
But the administration’s internal debates have brought Trump to an unexpected and unwanted conclusion, that ending the nuclear agreement is not in the national interest.
He won’t admit it. He’ll continue to denounce the deal. But he’s not walking away from it — and that gives nuclear diplomacy with Iran another chance to survive.