Trump's Iran Speech: U.S. Will Stay in Nuclear Deal and Try to Improve It, Tillerson Says

Trump's secretary of state said the administration will not ask Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran at this time as that would be 'tantamount to walking away' from the nuclear deal

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Family Research Council's 2017 Value Voters Summit on October 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Family Research Council's 2017 Value Voters Summit on October 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States will remain part of the nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a briefing with journalists on Thursday, ahead of President Donald Trump's speech on his administration's Iran policy scheduled for Friday. Tillerson added that the Trump administration will also not ask Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran, as that would be "tantamount to walking away" from the agreement. 

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"We will stay in the [nuclear deal]," Tillerson said, despite the fact that Trump is to decertify the agreement. Tillerson explained that Trump's announcement is part of an internal American political procedure, that will not have an immediate effect on the international agreement, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and includes Iran and six other world powers. 

>> Explained: What actually happens if Trump decertifies the Iran nuclear deal >>

Trump's decertification statement will give congress 60 days to decide what course of action to take. Tillerson said in his briefing that Congress will have three main options - doing nothing and thus leaving the agreement in place; re-imposing sanctions on Iran, a step that would probably lead to the agreement's collapse; or promoting legislation outside the scope of the agreement to toughen U.S. policy toward Iran's nuclear program. The final option is to be Trump's recommendation to lawmakers.

"There’s a third pathway that the president is going to be suggesting," Tillerson explained. "Amending the legislation [regarding the Iran deal in Congress] to put in place some very firm 'trigger points'. If Iran crosses any of these 'trigger points,' the sanctions automatically go back into place."

Tillerson said the suggested "trigger points" will deal both with Iran's nuclear program and its ballistic missiles program. 

Tillerson added that he has presented some of these ideas in conversations he had with European foreign ministers, and also with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month. Tillerson said that he believes there is also a certain level of openness on behalf of the other parties who signed the Iran deal to discuss a separate agreement dealing with the issue of Iran's ballistic missile program. "I wouldn’t give it a high chance of success but there was openness to talk," he said. 

Tillerson noted that Trump's decertification is not based on Iran's "technical compliance" with the nuclear deal, which the administration is not disputing. He also made it clear that the Trump administration is not going to recommend to Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran at this time.

"We'll try to fix deficiencies [in the agreement]," he said. "That's why we're not recommending that Congress re-impose sanctions, because that's tantamount to walking away."

With regards to the administration's broader Iran strategy, Tillerson said that it will include new, tough measures against Iran's proxies in the Middle East, as well as against Iran's Revolutionary Guard. He said however, that the administration will not go as far as to designate the Revolutionary Guard a terror organization, a decision that will likely disappoint some hawks as well as Washington's right-wing supporters of Israel.

Tillerson said that the move was decided against as "there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army of a country." He explained that such a decision would "put in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield, and it would trigger actions that are not necessarily in the best interests of our military actions."