President Trump on Tuesday could make good on his longstanding threat to tear up the Iran nuclear accord — or he could heap fresh disdain on the landmark disarmament pact while charting a course that would keep key elements in place, at least for now.
On Monday, five days ahead of a closely-watched, self-imposed deadline, the president teased his planned announcement with a tweet, telling the world to stay tuned for word at 2 p.m. Tuesday, catching even most of his senior national security staff by surprise.
The decision, potentially one of the most consequential of Trump’s presidency, will have repercussions in nearly every corner of the globe. It could ratchet up tensions in the already volatile Middle East, strain U.S. alliances with Europe and complicate dealings with Russia and China, which are signatories to the pact.
On the campaign trail, and in campaign-style rallies since taking office, Trump has again and again roared out his opposition to what he has called the worst deal ever — one that is, not coincidentally, considered one of his predecessor’s signature achievements.
His new national security advisor, John Bolton, is a staunch opponent of the Obama-era accord between Iran and six world powers, heightening speculation that Trump would deliver a coup de grace by immediately reimposing U.S. sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 accord. He has held up doing so in past opportunities, saying he was giving European allies a chance to toughen up the deal.
Those allies have pleaded with Trump to preserve the accord, or at least give them more time to fix it. They note that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency empowered to inspect Iranian facilities, has repeatedly found Tehran in compliance with the terms of the deal.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel coordinated back-to-back White House visits last month in which they urged Trump to stay in the deal. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with Trump by phone over the weekend and followed up by dispatching her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, for a last-minute visit to Washington.
In an appearance Monday on “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite cable show, Johnson cast Trump in a flattering statesmanlike light, saying he was correct to criticize the Iran pact.
“The president is right to see flaws in [the accord], and he set a very reasonable challenge to the world,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Look, Iran is behaving badly, has a tendency to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles. We’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to push back on what Iran is doing in the region. We’ve got to be tougher.’”
Germany, France and Britain have all suggested they have no intention of leaving the deal. But it’s not clear how major European companies and other multinational corporations, including in banking and energy, could avoid running afoul of U.S. sanctions if Trump restores them.
Iran, for its part, telegraphed fresh defiance — but stopped far short of saying it would abandon the deal, or resume its now-blocked nuclear program, if Trump pulls out.
“We are not worried about America’s cruel decisions,” President Hassan Rouhani declared in a speech that was aired on Iranian state television Monday. “We are prepared for all scenarios, and no change will occur in our lives.”
Heading into Tuesday’s announcement, Trump kept up his criticism of the agreement, denouncing former Secretary of State John Kerry’s reported back-channel attempts to save the deal.
Kerry, who served as lead negotiator on the deal for the Obama administration, has in recent months held private strategy consultations with foreign officials aimed at bolstering the deal’s chances of surviving, the Boston Globe reported on Friday.
One of Kerry’s interlocutors was Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom he met on the sidelines of a conference last year in Oslo, Norway. Zarif recently warned that if the accord was scrapped, Iran might restart its nuclear program.
Trump took angry exception to the report of Kerry’s contacts.
“The United States does not need John Kerry’s possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy on the very badly negotiated Iran Deal,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “He was the one that created this MESS in the first place!”
The 2015 accord lifted crippling sanctions that had locked Iran out of international banking and the global oil trade. In return, Tehran limited its ability to enrich uranium, reconfigured a heavy-water reactor to block it from producing plutonium, reduced its uranium stockpile, and agreed to international inspections and monitoring.
Trump is widely expected to abandon the deal, but experts say he also could claim victory by imposing supplemental sanctions that leave the nuclear restrictions in place but clamp down harder on his other concerns.
As recently as last week, administration officials were discussing ways to strengthen three aspects of the nuclear deal: by expanding the U.N. inspections, ending the time limits or “sunset clauses” on some of the nuclear restrictions, and adding new sanctions aimed at curbing Iran’s production of ballistic missiles.
“If they’re able to strengthen those three provisions in a way that’s considered fool-proof,” Trump could find a way to stay in, said a former administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Jim Hanson, a Trump ally who heads the right-leaning Center for Security Studies, said Trump is facing enormous pressure from Europeans and other proponents not to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
But pulling out has become as intrinsically linked to Trump’s persona as building a giant wall on the border with Mexico, another campaign pledge he has yet to fulfill.
“I don’t see how he can be Trump and stay in,” Hanson said.
Trump has several options, in addition to tearing the deal up and staying in. He could also choose to continue discussions to rework the deal. Or he could decline to recertify the deal without formally pulling out.
He faces a May 12 deadline on whether to renew waivers that eased sanctions on Iran’s central bank, which deals with Iran’s oil exports. Another set of sanctions, focused on more than 400 Iranian companies, individuals and sectors, is up for renewal on July 11.
Trump could reimpose only the central bank sanctions. That would give companies or countries 180 days to reduce their oil purchases from Iran, giving them more time to search for a solution. Hitting all 400 targets at the start would be far more drastic, and could create a crisis.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has written extensively about the administration’s dealings with Iran, said Trump’s often-harsh rhetoric surrounding the accord belied a “very deliberately ambiguous set of positions” that could be reflected in Tuesday’s announcement.
“My guess would be that he is going to at least threaten to restore sanctions at some point,” he said. “He doesn’t have to do it this time.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to foreshadow the decision. But she told reporters that Kerry's efforts to save the deal were not affecting deliberations.
"I don't think that we would take advice from somebody who created what the president sees to be one of the worst deals ever made," she said. "I'm not sure why we would start listening to him now."