By mid-January, the president will face new legal deadlines to choose whether to slap U.S. sanctions back on Tehran. Senior lawmakers and some of Trump's top national security officials are trying to preserve the agreement.
But the deal's backers fear Trump has grown more willing to reject the counsel of his foreign policy team, as he did with his recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The decision represents an opportunity for Trump to deliver on a campaign promise to rip up the Iran deal, one he has repeatedly deferred at the urging of senior officials.
When Trump last publicly addressed the status of the Iran agreement, in mid-October, he indicated his patience had worn thin with what he has called “the worst deal ever,” and demanded that Congress and European countries take action to address what he considers the deal’s weakness.
“[I]n the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” Trump said in an Oct. 13 speech.
The three months since then have shown little progress toward such a solution.
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In an effort to save the deal, members of Congress are discussing legislation that would give Trump political cover to extend the deal. But it’s not clear whether Republicans and Democrats can agree on even a symbolic measure in time.
“It’s entirely possible that Trump tells Congress and the Europeans, ‘I gave you 90 days to get your act together and you didn't — and I’m done,’” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank with close ties to the Trump White House.
The deal was negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration, along with five other nations. It lifted U.S. and European sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The deal’s supporters say military action was the only realistic alternative to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Critics say the deal allowed Iran to retain too much nuclear capability and that the sanctions should have been given more time to bite.
The deadlines for Trump begin on Jan. 11, when the agreement requires him — as it does every 90 days — to certify whether Tehran is meeting its obligations under the deal. International inspectors who visit the country’s nuclear facilities have repeatedly said Iran is doing so.
But Trump refused to certify Iranian compliance in mid-October, citing in part Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East.
Trump’s refusal to certify had no immediate practical effect on the deal, though under the law it triggered a 60-day window for Congress to restore the sanctions by a simple majority, without the possibility of a Senate filibuster.
While expectations were high for some congressional action that Trump could point to as a response to his complaints, Congress became consumed by tax reform and took no action.
One hard-line measure that attracted attention this fall, devised by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), went nowhere after Democrats made clear they would strongly oppose it.
Even more consequential are upcoming deadlines for Trump to continue the temporary waiver of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which the deal dictates will not be permanently repealed for several more years.
The president must renew the waivers every 120 days. Sources familiar with the law said multiple waiver deadlines arrive between Jan. 12 and Jan. 17, forcing Trump to reassess the deal.
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If Trump rejects the waivers and restores biting sanctions, Tehran is certain to claim the U.S. has breached the agreement and — supporters of the deal say — may restart its nuclear program.
That could court a military confrontation with the U.S. and Israel. At a minimum, the U.S would find itself isolated abroad given that every other party to the deal — France, the U.K., Germany, China and Russia — all strongly oppose a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.
Top Trump administration officials, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, all hope to avoid that outcome, telling others that while they may not love the nuclear deal, the potential fallout from a unilateral U.S. withdrawal would be too great to risk.
McMaster has met with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, to discuss potential legislation that might appease Trump. As the year wound down, Cardin and Corker continued discussions about what such legislation could look like.
Congressional sources said the goal is to find language that would take a hard line on Iran — but on non-nuclear issues, so as not to violate the deal’s terms, which prohibit the imposition of new conditions on Iran’s nuclear program after the deal was concluded.
A legislative fix might also end the requirement that Trump certify the deal every 90 days, removing a recurring political thorn in the president’s side.
A congressional measure “may convince Trump to somehow say he has changed the conversation and he may not take any precipitous action in the near term,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit Washington group that strongly supports the nuclear agreement.
Shortly before Congress adjourned for the holidays, Corker expressed optimism on the subject: “I’m actually feeling like we might get someplace,” he told POLITICO.
But Corker and Cardin will have little time after Congress reconvenes to craft language before the certification and sanctions waiver deadlines arrive. “There’s a chance they can at least get it agreed to, but I can't see a final bill getting to the president's desk for a signature,” Dubowitz said.
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Trump administration officials have also appealed to the French, British and Germans to come up with proposals that might serve as supplements to the nuclear deal, but the Europeans have shown minimal interest.
That has left supporters of the deal alarmed that Trump may finally shrug off appeals from top officials and, in effect, tear up the deal as he has long threatened to do. A National Security Council spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The decision on Iran comes as the Trump administration reviews its strategy in the region. The national security adviser, McMaster, plans to roll out results of a review of U.S. Syria policy in January, according to two sources who have consulted with the White House on Middle East issues. The new strategy is expected to focus on checking Iranian influence in the country as Syria’s nearly seven-year civil war winds down.
Kimball said Trump's Jerusalem decision — against the advice of senior national security officials — signaled the president may be willing to follow other advisers' voices for major foreign policy decisions.
“Donald Trump has shown with the Jerusalem and other decisions that he does not have the wisdom to listen to even his closest advisers,” Kimball said.
“The usual logic that guides U.S. national security policy may be chucked out the window because the president is trying to fulfill a reckless campaign promise,” he added.