US Policymakers Work to Fix Nuclear Deal but Urge Trump to Work With Europeans

USA Today reported on Monday that Republican lawmakers had begun holding meetings with the intention of fixing “major flaws” in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. On Friday, President Donald Trump addressed the nation to announce a new strategy for confronting the Islamic Republic of Iran. As expected, the president withheld the certification that is due for the nuclear deal every 90 days, according to a US law that was passed in order to ratify American participation in the agreement, negotiated along with the four other members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.

Trump’s decertification was based on his conviction that the Islamic Republic is not abiding by the “spirit” of the deal, the preamble of which says that the signatories anticipate improvements in regional and global security as a result of its implementation. However, this decertification does not remove the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Neither does it have any immediate effect on the multilateral agreement, which the other signatories continue to support.

But in his speech, Trump underscored that he could use his presidential authority to re-impose sanctions, thereby ending American participation in the deal if Congress and the European negotiating parties failed to take adequate steps to improve upon what Trump has called one of the worst deals ever negotiated. Voice of America News notes that Trump reiterated his position on Monday, saying that the “total termination” of the JCPOA remains a distinct possibility.

However, such remarks are somewhat at odds with the commentary that has been offered by his foreign policy team in the wake of Friday’s speech. The New York Post emphasized that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had spoken to NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday and said that the White House hopes to keep the US in the deal, but significantly strengthen it. Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin called attention to Haley’s remarks and also to those of several other administration officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She criticized a lack of continuity among these statements, suggesting that the foreign policy advisors are struggling to attach a suitable explanation to a course of action they had advised against.

Indeed, it was widely reported in the run-up to the October 15 certification deadline that the president’s previous certifications in April and July had been offered only begrudgingly, after much insistence from Tillerson and others. Their advocacy for certification was presumably based in large part upon concerns that withholding it would strain relations between the US and its European partners who support the deal and believe it to be working as intended.

This perspective did not fully prevail over the president’s animosity for the deal in this case. But it does not appear to have completely fallen flat, either. This was the conclusion of an article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on Monday and described Trump’s action on the JCPOA as a compromise with his cabinet. Accordingly, some of the presidents’ domestic allies have addressed European partners since Friday in order to suggest that they should view the current situation optimistically because the White House did not withdraw the US from the agreement.

Among those to speak in favor of this perspective is Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was also one of the legislators who met on Monday to discuss the fixing of major flaws. Although Corker was a leading voice of opposition to the JCPOA during the negotiation and ratification processes, he now supports remaining in the agreement and has publicly clashed with the president on this topic. Their disagreement arguably deepened on Monday when, according to Reuters, Corker said that the Trump administration was going to have to cooperate with its partners and exercise “tremendous diplomacy with our European allies” in order to develop its Iran policy and resolve the nuclear issue.

Mr. Trump faced substantial pressure from those European allies in advance of Friday’s speech, and he will continue to face more in the wake of his decision to decertify without withdrawing. VOA News reported that the European Union had dispatched its foreign policy head Federica Mogherini to Washington so that she could work with American lawmakers on the issue. And The Guardian pointed out on Monday that all 28 of the EU’s foreign ministers had reiterated their joint insistence upon “full and effective implementation” of the JCPOA.

The Guardian report also indicated that many of the steadfast supports of the nuclear deal have cited tensions with North Korea as a reason to maintain it, fearing that the dissolution of a recently-negotiated agreement would send a signal that there is no value in holding diplomatic talks with a nation that might proceed to break that agreement unilaterally, or threaten to do so.

However, Trump himself has dismissed the notion of negotiations with the North Korean communist dictatorship, even going so far as to say that Secretary Tillerson was “wasting his time” by trying to open talks. In the meantime, tensions between North Korea and the Western world have been escalating in the face of multiple tests of delivery systems of nuclear weapons.

But the same is true of Iran, which has carried out upwards of a dozen ballistic missile tests since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, despite the fact that a concurrent UN Security Council resolution called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on such nuclear-capable weapons. These missile tests and similar provocative Iranian behaviors are key reasons for the US president’s conclusion that Iran is not in compliance with the spirit of the deal.

These activities may also represent an opportunity for much-needed cooperation between Trump and his European counterparts, most of whom support the JCPOA but still recognize the need to constrain Iran’s belligerence and anti-Western rhetoric. Those tendencies were once again on display in the aftermath of Trump’s speech when, according to CBS News, the regime threatened to once again expand its conventional weapons development and stockpiles in response to the supposed perception of Western threats.