President Donald Trump is expected to announce next week that he will “decertify” the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to a reluctant Congress, people briefed on the White House strategy said Thursday.
The move would mark the first step in a process that could eventually result in the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran, potentially derailing a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear activities reached in 2015 with the United States and five other nations.
This week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford expressed qualified support for the deal during congressional testimony. And Mattis suggested he did not believe taking the step to decertify would scuttle the agreement.
Trump is expected to deliver a speech, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12, laying out a larger strategy for confronting the nation he blames for terrorism and instability throughout the Middle East.
The fate of the nuclear pact is only one consideration in that larger strategy, U.S. officials said, although given Trump’s focus on it as an “embarrassment,” it is the most high-profile element.
The deal signed under President Barack Obama was intended to close off the potential for Iran to quickly build a nuclear bomb by curbing nuclear activities the United States and other partners considered most troubling. It allowed some uranium enrichment to continue for what Iran claims is peaceful medical research and energy; the country says it has never sought nuclear weapons. In exchange, world powers lifted crippling U.S. and international economic sanctions.
Trump said last month that he had decided what to do on Iran but that he would not divulge the decision.
Welcoming military leaders to a White House dinner Thursday night, Trump said Iran had not lived up to its end of the nuclear bargain.
“The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence, bloodshed and chaos across the Middle East,” he said. “That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions. They have not lived up to the spirit of their agreement.”
The president’s senior national security advisers agreed within the past several weeks to recommend that Trump “decertify” the agreement at the Oct. 15 deadline, two of those people said.
The administration has begun discussing possible legislation to “strengthen” the agreement, congressional aides and others said – a “fix it or nix it” approach suggested by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading Republican hawk on Iran.
But the prospects of such an approach are highly uncertain, and many supporters of the deal consider it a dodge.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last month that he will not reopen the agreement for negotiation. Separately, representatives of Iran, China and Russia told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the same thing during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session last month, two senior diplomats familiar with that meeting said.
Cotton appeared to preview the main elements of the administration’s plan this week, although he said he does not know exactly what Trump plans to do. The two met Thursday at the White House.
In a speech Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Cotton said Trump should “decline to certify the deal and begin the work of strengthening it.”
He said decertification should be based on a finding that the deal is not in the U.S. “vital national security interest,” citing:
“the long catalogue of the regime’s crimes and perfidy against the United States, as well as the deal’s inherent weakness.”
But Cotton said he would not push for the immediate reimposition of sanctions, as some conservative lawmakers and outside lobbying groups are pushing to do.
He laid out proposals for Congress to pass new stipulations for U.S. participation in the deal, including elimination of the “sunset clauses” under which restrictions on some Iranian nuclear activities expire after several years, tougher inspections requirements and new curbs on Iran’s ballistic- and cruise-missile programs.
Cotton claimed that a unified statement from Congress would help Trump forge a new agreement among European and other allies and strengthen his hand for renegotiation.
“The world needs to know we’re serious, we’re willing to walk away, and we’re willing to reimpose sanctions – and a lot more than that,” Cotton said. “And they’ll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.”
In the Senate, plans have been underway for months to respond to a presidential decertification.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been Capitol Hill’s point person on discussions with the White House. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also have been made aware of plans being discussed with the White House and State Department.
“What we have to figure out is how to actually accomplish what we were well on our way to do before Barack Obama gave them a patient pathway to a nuclear bomb,” Gardner said, referring to what he and other Republicans see as the deal’s failure to prevent Iran from developing weapons down the road. “I’m not to commit to myself to one direction, other than that we actually have a deal in place to commit Iran will come to agreement without a nuclear program.”