Trump Seeks Way to Declare Iran in Violation of Nuclear Deal

Trump made it clear he does not plan to certify Iran's compliance with the deal for a third time

David E. Sanger, The New York Times
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In this July 24, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington
In this July 24, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare, in the Blue Room of the White House in WashingtonCredit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
David E. Sanger, The New York Times

President Donald Trump, frustrated that his national security aides have not given him any options on how the United States can leave the Iran nuclear deal, has instructed them to find a rationale for declaring that the country is violating the terms of the accord.

U.S. officials have already told allies they should be prepared to join in reopening negotiations with Iran or expect that the United States may abandon the agreement, as it did the Paris climate accord. And according to several foreign officials, the United States has begun raising with international inspectors in Vienna the possibility of demanding access to military sites in Iran where there is reasonable suspicion of nuclear research or development.

If the Iranians balk, as seems likely, their refusal could enable Washington to declare Tehran in violation of the 2-year-old deal.

Trump has enormous latitude to abandon the accord. It was never a treaty because President Barack Obama knew that opposition to the agreement in the Republican-dominated Senate was so great that he could never get the two-thirds majority needed for ratification. Instead, he made an executive agreement, one that his successor could eliminate by merely disregarding the accord’s requirement to waive sanctions against Iran.

Trump’s instructions followed a sharp series of exchanges last week with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, after Trump initially balked at certifying, for a second time since he took office, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement. He later reluctantly approved the certification.

Trump had expected to be presented with options for how to get out of the deal, according to two officials, and in the words of one of them, “he had a bit of a meltdown when that wasn’t one of the choices.”

Trump himself made it clear he does not plan to let that happen again.

“We’re doing very detailed studies,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview this week. Later, he added that when the next 90-day review of the deal comes around — mandated by Congress two years ago — “I think they’ll be noncompliant.”

His aides say they are not so sure of the outcome, and they described the studies Trump referred to as evenhanded efforts to evaluate the costs and benefits of staying inside the deal — with its sharp limitations on Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel for at least the next nine years — versus abandoning it.

Some concede that the diplomatic cost of abandoning the agreement would be high. The other parties to the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — do not share Trump’s objections. If the United States withdraws support for the accord, it will be isolated on the issue, much as it is on the climate change agreement.

But the president’s mind seems made up. “Look, I have a lot of respect for Rex and his people, good relationship,” he said of Tillerson. “It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply.”

Even longtime critics of the deal in Congress have their doubts about the wisdom of abandoning it. In an interview this week with David Ignatius of The Washington Post, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, R-Tenn., strongly suggested that this is not the moment to abandon something that is largely working.

“What I say to the president, and this is what Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster say,” said Corker, referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is that “you can only tear the agreement up one time.”

Right now, he added, “it’s not like a nuclear weapon is getting ready to be developed.”

Absent any urgency, he argued for a more nuanced approach. “Radically enforce it,” he said of the deal, demanding access to “various facilities in Iran.”

“If they don’t let us in,” Corker said, “boom.”

He added: “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the U.S., because we want our allies with us.” Tillerson, he said, ultimately wanted to renegotiate a deal that would stop Iran from enriching uranium forever — a concession it is hard to imagine Iran ever making.

Some version of Corker’s “radical enforcement” is essentially the strategy that national security officials have described in recent days. They deny they are trying to provoke the Iranians. Instead, they say they are testing the utility of the accord so they can report back to Trump about whether Iran’s interpretation of the provisions of the agreement, and its separate commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency, would pave the way for international inspectors to go anywhere in the country.

That probably sets the stage for some kind of standoff.

Iran has long said that its most sensitive military locations are off limits. That issue came to a head in 2015 when international inspectors demanded access to Parchin, a military base near Tehran where there was evidence of past nuclear work. A compromise was worked out in which Iran took environmental samples itself, under surveillance by agency inspectors. The inspectors found little, but the precedent of how the inspection was carried out was cited by critics of the deal as evidence that the Iranians could hide work on uranium enrichment or other technology in off-limits military facilities.

It is unclear whether U.S. intelligence agencies possess evidence of potential violations that go beyond suspicions. Several senior intelligence officials have warned there are risks involved in directing the international agency to specific locations, only to discover nothing nefarious. Such an outcome would have echoes, they caution, of the failed effort to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.

One of Trump’s complaints about the 2015 deal is that it covers only nuclear activity, not support for terrorism, or missile testing, or Iran’s activities in Syria and Iraq. The State Department complained that an Iranian launch of a missile into space on Thursday violated the spirit of the nuclear accord.

The missile test was the first by Iran since Trump took office. But such tests of what are essentially carrier rockets are not prohibited.

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