A heated behind-the-scenes debate is playing out among high-level Trump administration advisers over whether the president should declare Iran in violation of the nuclear accord reached under his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
Despite harsh criticism on the campaign trail and since taking office, Mr. Trump has grudgingly kept the deal alive so far, but he appears increasingly determined to break with some of his top advisers on the matter when the nuclear accord next comes up for review in October, sources say.
Such a move would be a major first step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to pull Washington out of the accord but also could trigger the administration’s biggest clash with U.S. allies since withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement in June.
At issue is whether Britain, France and Germany, which backed the nuclear deal two years ago with China and Russia, would side with Mr. Trump in taking a stand against what foreign policy hawks describe as clear violations of the accord and other provocations, including ballistic missile tests, by Iran. Washington could find itself isolated unless it can clearly place the blame on Iran for violating the agreement.
Britain, France and Germany joined the United States in a complaint at the United Nations on Wednesday that called a July 27 Iranian space rocket launch a threatening move in violation of a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution. But what remains to be seen is whether the three allies will take the more controversial step of backing Mr. Trump should he publicly pressure Tehran in October.
The nuclear accord, after years of Iranian isolation, opened the way for Europe to do business with Tehran by dramatically easing sanctions on the Islamic republic in exchange for curbs to nuclear activities that the West believed were geared toward the clandestine development of nuclear bombs.
With uncertainty this week over where the European allies stand, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has acknowledged that he and Mr. Trump have different views on the nuclear accord and how the administration should use it going forward. Mr. Trump told The Wall Street Journal last month that he predicts Iran will be judged noncompliant after the next certification deadline in October.
Mr. Tillerson told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday that such a judgment would have momentous consequences. Mr. Tillerson and others have argued that the U.S. would have more leverage to pressure Iran if it remains part of the agreement.
“Do we want to tear it up and walk away?” Mr. Tillerson said. “Do we want to make the point to Iran that we expect you to get back in line with the spirit of the agreement and we’re going to stay here and hold you accountable to it? I think there are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran.”
Internal debate over the matter, according to a source who spoke with The Washington Times, is playing out among Joel Rayburn, Mr. Trump’s National Security Council director on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria; Christopher Ford, the NSC’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation; and others, including Mr. Tillerson, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and White House aide Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law.
Some say Mr. Trump’s ultimate goal is to get Iran to kill the deal. Officials in Tehran reacted angrily to a sanctions bill that Mr. Trump signed Wednesday — which also included more economic restrictions for Russia and North Korea — but appeared not ready to take the bait.
“The main goal of America in approving these sanctions against Iran is to destroy the nuclear deal, and we will show a very intelligent reaction to this action,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said in an interview with state TV, according to the ISNA news agency. “We are definitely not going to act in a way that get us entangled in the politics of the American government and Trump.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who made the nuclear deal a centerpiece of his successful re-election campaign this year, will be sworn in Thursday for a second four-year term.
Good cop/bad cop
Mark Dubowitz, an analyst on Iran policy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Wednesday that it would be an overstatement to say Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump are in disagreement on the issue.
He said the two men appear to be tacitly engaged in a kind of “good cop/bad cop” posturing, with Mr. Trump threatening to take hard action by trashing the nuclear deal and Mr. Tillerson pushing the more diplomatic message that the administration might be willing to work with Iran even if it is declared out of compliance in October.
“This is far better than we had in the Obama administration, when the nuclear deal was negotiated and we had then-Secretary of State John Kerry running around as the good cop, while President Obama was in the background as the even nicer cop, and it resulted in giving away too much,” Mr. Dubowitz said.
There is no question, he said, that Mr. Trump should publicly call out Tehran for clearly violating the agreement.
“They’ve tested more advanced centrifuges that could be used to more quickly and more covertly enrich uranium for use in a nuclear weapon than they are permitted by the deal,” he said. “They have exceeded their heavy-water caps, which allows them to produce the essential element for a plutonium nuclear bomb, they have exceeded their uranium enrichment caps.”
Mr. Dubowitz also pointed to intelligence reports that Tehran has illicitly sought to procure nuclear and missile technology from Germany.
The administration, he said, should take the technical step in October of stating that Iran has not met the statutory criteria in the legislation, which requires certification every 90 days, that they are in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. Such a declaration would neither result in an immediate “snap back” of economic sanctions against Iran nor signal that Washington was totally pulling out of the agreement, but would be a necessary step toward renegotiating certain aspects to it.
What it would do, he said, is “undermine Iran’s narrative of nuclear innocence” in a way that hands the Trump administration leverage to push for a “follow-on agreement that addresses fatal flaws in the original accord.”
But would European allies go along with that? Mr. Dubowitz says yes.
“They’ll be happier to choose a follow-on agreement than the end of this agreement,” he said. “If you give the Europeans a choice between access to a $400 billion Iranian market and $19 trillion U.S. market, they’re going to choose the U.S.”
But deal supporters say the administration should tread carefully in its posturing.
“The nuclear deal succeeded in both taking an Iranian path to a nuclear bomb as well as war with Iran off the table,” said Trita Parsi, author of “Losing an Enemy,” a book about the diplomacy behind the Iran nuclear negotiations.
“By scuttling the deal, regardless of how Trump does it, both of these disasters will be put back on the table,” Mr. Parsi told The Times.
“Trump complains that the deal has not changed Iran into a good neighbor, in his view,” he said. “The Iranians have the same complaint. The deal has not made the United States give less political cover and support for the destabilizing activities of Saudi Arabia, for instance. On the contrary, Trump is selling more arms to the Saudis than ever before.”
But Mr. Trump, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month, sounded like a man who had made up his mind. “I think [Iran] will be noncompliant” when the next review comes around, he told the newspaper.
“Look, I have a lot of respect for [Mr. Tillerson] and his people, good relationship,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply.”