The U.S. plans to remain in the nuclear deal with Iran but will push to make sure Tehran lives up to its end of the bargain, administration officials said Sunday, as President Trump asks Congress for help in beefing up an international pact he once derided as “the worst deal ever.”
Mr. Trump announced Friday that he was decertifying the deal signed by President Obama but stopped short of ending the international agreement. Instead, he gave lawmakers 60 days to take a tougher approach toward Iran’s lawless behavior.
“We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Mr. Trump said. “Iran is not living up to the spirit of the deal.”
Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday that the U.S. could not afford to turn a blind eye to a laundry list of transgressions out of the Islamic republic.
“When you look at the threats and you look at the fact that they’re the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, you look at the ballistic missile tests that they continue to do, you look at the arms sales, you look at all the trouble they’re causing around the world, what the president’s saying is, ‘It’s not proportionate. We need to look at this. We need to see how it is,’” she told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Obama administration joined five other world powers in 2015 in signing the agreement with Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. President Obama said the accord would prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, though he never submitted it to Congress for ratification.
Many congressional Republicans and the Israeli government oppose the deal, saying it won’t stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb or curb its destabilizing activities in the region.
Mr. Trump, who threatened during his presidential campaign to rip up the deal, has decided instead to try to tighten the restrictions on Tehran by going to Congress.
Still, the president held open the option of terminating the agreement.
“I may very well do that. I like a two-step process much better,” the president told reporters later.
Indeed, Mrs. Haley said the U.S. will stick with the agreement for now but will look for ways to help the American people “feel safer” by seeking an assist from Congress.
“I think what you’re going to see is the president’s going to work very closely with Congress to try and come up with something that is more proportionate, something that does make sense for the U.S. to agree to,” she said.
Mr. Trump’s action will have no immediate impact on the six-nation agreement, which calls for Iran to submit to international nuclear inspections in exchange for lifting of economic sanctions.
“This is purely an internal domestic decision,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said.
Nonetheless, the decision sparked criticism from various corners of the globe.
Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kerman called Mr. Trump’s move ridiculous and said it “revealed the true image of America around the world.”
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini reportedly spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement. The discussions, according to Iranian media outlets, were focused on alternatives to preserve the nuclear deal without U.S. participation.
The leaders of Germany, Britain and France said in a statement that they “are concerned by the possible implications” of Mr. Trump’s action.
Yet Mr. Trump was critical of the negotiations, saying Mr. Obama allowed Iran to receive a cash infusion of more than $100 billion to help fund terrorist activities. He even mentioned the oft-criticized decision to fly crates of cash to Tehran as the deal was sealed.
“I wonder where all that money went,” Mr. Trump said sarcastically.
He added, “The deal allows Iran to continue developing certain elements of its nuclear program. What is the purpose of a deal that, at best, only delays Iran’s nuclear capabilities for a short period of time?”
Mr. Tillerson said the administration considers the nuclear deal weak because it doesn’t address Iran’s support of terrorism or its provisions for a phaseout within 15 years of constraints for Tehran to build a weapon.
Mr. Trump’s approved strategy for Iran “is the culmination of nine months of deliberation with Congress and our allies on how to best protect American security,” according to the White House.
The plan focuses on “neutralizing the government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants,” the White House said.
The president said he wants Congress to strengthen enforcement of the deal to prevent Iran from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile and “to make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law.”
Also, the president said he is directing the Treasury Department to sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps over its support of terrorism in the Middle East. He called it a “long-overdue step.”
Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran — a group that opposes the Tehran regime — praised the move, saying it will cut off funding for the corps’ “malign activities.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and a vocal critic of the Iran deal, said he and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, have crafted legislation with the White House to address the president’s concerns.
“Lawmakers need to do now what we couldn’t do two years ago: unite around an Iran strategy that truly stops Iran’s nuclear weapons program and empowers the United States and our allies to combat the full spectrum of Iran’s imperial aggression,” Mr. Cotton said. “The legislation Sen. Corker and I have been working on with the administration will address the major flaws in the original Iran deal: the sunset clauses, the weak inspections regime and the failure to restrict Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges. And it will create time and leverage for firm diplomacy — together with our allies — to work and neutralize the threat of a nuclear Iran permanently.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the president’s plan doesn’t strengthen the international agreement.
“Negotiating additional terms to the nuclear deal requires a coalition of international partners, not unilateral congressional action,” Mr. Engel said. “Failing to certify the deal is a risky gamble. It’s the first step toward withdrawing from the agreement keeping Iran from building the bomb.”
Mrs. Haley responded to critics by saying Mr. Trump won’t let Iran “become the next North Korea,” while sending a strong signal to Kim Jong-un as he flaunts his own nuclear ambitions from Pyongyang.
“So what this says to North Korea is, ‘Don’t expect us to engage in a bad deal. And also, if at any point we do come up with something, expect us to follow through with it. Expect us to hold you accountable. You’re not just going to have a free-for-all,’” she told NBC.
In his address, Mr. Trump reminded Americans of Iran’s involvement in some of the most tragic and humiliating episodes for the U.S. on the world stage, beginning with militants’ seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the holding of dozens of American hostages there for 444 days.
He went on to list bombings by Iranian-backed terrorists of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, of a Marine barracks in Lebanon, and other attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia and in East Africa.
Mr. Trump also criticized the Obama administration for agreeing to lift economic sanctions as part of the deal in 2015 “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime.”
He said European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May are concerned about his action because European firms are doing more business with Iran since the sanctions were lifted.
“They would love me to stay in, only for one reason: Look at the kind of money that’s being spent,” the president said. “Iran is spending money in various countries. Emmanuel [Macron] called up and he talked to me. I said, ‘Look, Emmanuel, they just gave [automaker] Renault a lot of money. Take their money, enjoy yourself.’ But we’ll see what happens. Iran has to behave much differently.”