- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

With Tehran and U.S. allies in Europe stepping up pressure to preserve the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, President Trump appears poised to back away from a threat to pull America out of the deal, opting instead for new, albeit more targeted, sanctions against Iranian officials and entities.

Mr. Trump faces a Jan. 12 deadline to extend waivers of broad oil and energy sector sanctions that were critical in getting Iran’s commitment to the Obama-era accord. While the president remains sharply critical of the deal — even moving to “decertify” it under U.S. law in October — administration sources say he’s now leaning toward once again approving the broad-based waivers.

Mr. Trump’s expected move falls far short of what U.S. Iranian hawks had been hoping for, even if Mr. Trump again asserts the deal is not in the U.S. interest. The president’s top security advisers, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are reportedly once again urging the president not to blow up the accord.

Iran has ratcheted up threats to end cooperation on curbing its suspect nuclear programs if the administration refuses to waive the sanctions, a move that would effectively pull Washington out of the multilateral deal that Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia all agreed to with Tehran.

Under the terms of the deal, billions of dollars worth of oil and energy sanctions were dramatically eased on Iran in exchange for significant cuts to Iran’s nuclear programs, cuts to be monitored by close U.N. inspections.

According to the Tehran Times, Behrooz Kamalvandi, the deputy chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Wednesday that Iran would ramp up uranium enrichment operations — the key process for developing nuclear bombs — to levels far higher than before the 2015 deal if the U.S. backed out.

Mr. Kamalvandi’s comments came as European powers prepared to meet Thursday to reaffirm their support for the accord. The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, is slated to host the meeting with Iranian diplomats in Brussels, where representatives from Britain, France and Germany are expected to reassure Iran that they remain committed to the deal.

Some analysts have argued that a full Trump administration withdrawal from the deal could be disastrous for U.S. relations with European allies, who’ve sought more eagerly than Washington to invest in Iran over the past two years.

“Killing or sticking with the Iran deal isn’t just about Iran. It’s about the U.S.’s relationship with its longstanding EU partners,” argues Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council and was an outspoken supporter of the Obama administration’s pursuit of the nuclear deal.

The 2015 deal stipulates that the White House must make a decision every four months on whether to keep the broad-based sanctions waivers in place. At the same time, U.S. law requires the president to decide every 90 days whether to “certify” that the nuclear deal remains in America’s national security interests.

While Mr. Trump already moved in October to “decertify” the accord, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the president is expected to extend the sanctions waivers, citing progress in bilateral efforts in Congress to push through legislation governing Washington’s participation in the deal.

Mr. Trump’s renewal of the waivers will likely be accompanied by new, targeted sanctions on Iranian businesses and people, the wire service reported. Some of those more targeted measures could be leveled against firms and individuals whose sanctions were scrapped in the 2015 accord.

It’s not clear whether Congress will live up to the administration’s hope for new legislation authorizing more the more targeted sanctions or other changes to the U.S. commitments under the deal. Last month saw lawmakers miss what had widely been seen as a deadline set by the White House for such legislation to be delivered.

The push for new sanctions appears to have gained new life amid the recent wave of anti-regime protests in Iran and more specifically the Iranian government’s harsh crackdown on demonstrators last week.

The State Department has threatened to take punitive action against Iranian officials who engaged in violence and other aggressive tactics to crush the protests. “We have ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protesters, contribute to censorship, or steal from the people of Iran,” department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last week.

Her comments came after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran Andrew Peek — a key Trump administration appointee at Foggy Bottom — told Voice of America that U.S. officials are “examining actions we can take against those individuals, like sanctions and other means.”

Some analysts are quick to note that the Iran deal as it is written does not preclude the United States or other world powers from exacting new sanctions against Iranian officials or entities — as long as the new sanctions are not tied to the nuclear dispute.

Juan Zarate, a former assistant treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that immediate sanctions could be imposed to “isolate and pressure the Revolutionary Guard and the regime leadership by spotlighting human rights abuses, corruption, support to terrorists and militant proxies, and the progress of their ballistic missile program in violation of U.N. sanctions.”

Such measures, said Mr. Zarate, “would be consistent with the agreement’s allowance for the application of non-nuclear sanctions.”

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