WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal while staying in the landmark agreement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday evening. But Trump will also ask Congress to impose new, unilateral “trigger points” that would reinstate sanctions against Tehran if it crosses certain thresholds.
Ahead of Trump’s highly-anticipated Friday afternoon speech on Iran, America’s top diplomat explained this as part of the new US strategy toward confronting the Islamic Republic and managing the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
“This is a much broader strategic approach than has been taken on Iran in the past and it is built around the intent that we will stay in the JCPOA, but the president is going to decertify the deal,” Tillerson said.
Under an agreement between former President Barack Obama and Congress — called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) — the White House is mandated to report to Capitol Hill lawmakers every 90 days on whether Tehran is honoring its commitments. It was designed as an oversight mechanism Congress would have over the deal.
After Trump grudgingly certified that Iran was abiding by the deal in July, he instructed his national security team to conduct an interagency review process on its options on the nuclear accord. “Now that we’ve completed that review … the president has come to the conclusion that he cannot certify INARA,” Tillerson said.
Decertifying the deal — saying that Iran is not in compliance — does not abrogate it. It will force Congress, however, to undertake a 60-day review period over whether to reimpose sanctions that were in place before the deal was implemented — or potentially take other actions.
Tillerson said there were three potential courses legislators could take: do nothing, reimpose nuclear sanctions (effectively ending the accord), or another alternative Trump would push.
“The president is going to be suggesting that the Congress consider, and that’s using the INARA act … let’s take the INARA and amend the INARA, put in place new trigger points, that if Iran violates these trigger points, the sanctions automatically go back into place.”
The former head of Exxon Mobil said the main conditions the administration wanted to address were the deal’s “sunset” provisions that allow restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to expire and Tehran’s ability to develop and test ballistic missiles.
The US does not believe it can “re-write” the 2015 nuclear accord, but wants to forge a separate deal in conjunction with it, Tillerson said, acknowledging that Iran is not amenable to renegotiating.
“Whether or not that means a re-opening of the agreement, which is unlikely because Iran’s not going to re-open the agreement, it more likely means we would undertake an initiative to have a new agreement that doesn’t replace the JCPOA, but that addresses these two issues in place alongside the JCPOA,” he said. “That’s going to require everyone’s willingness to engage on these issues.”
Tillerson confirmed that he’s had conversations with the European signatories of the deal and the Iranians about the new White House approach. “I indicated this to Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif when we saw each other on the margins of the UN,” he said.
Nevertheless, the secretary of state did also indicate to reporters that Trump was willing to exit the deal if the US was unable to change some of its terms. He told reporters his boss has directed his team to either make the deal more stringent or America should be prepared to leave it.
“That’s what the president has asked us to do — either put more teeth into this obligation that Iran is undertaking for all the sanctions relief and the benefits it received or lets just forget the whole thing and we’ll walk away and we’ll start all over,” Tillerson said. “Those are kind of the choices that are out there.”
Critics of decertification have stressed that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and top US officials have all said Iran is not violating the deal, which is something Tillerson did not deny.
Iran is in “technical compliance,” he said, but the US has concerns it wanted to address.
“One of the areas we are concerned about is that it is difficult to gain full access to sites throughout Iran and gain access to sites on a short-term basis,” he said. “We may have concerns about an activity that may be going on in a particular location. The IAEA then petitions Iran for access to the site. It generally takes about 30 days or more for them to grant us that access. A lot of stuff can obviously be moved around.”
Tillerson stressed that Trump’s decertification was not of the international deal itself, but rather, within the contours of an internal American process required under a federal statute.
“We’re not decertifying under the JCPOA,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Fine, they’re meeting the technical compliance.’ This is a separate certification process required by our own domestic law.”
“It does send a strong message to Iran that these are requirements the US feels are necessary to ensure you never have a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Tillerson said Trump would also announce in his speech Friday that he is directing the US Treasury Department to impose fresh sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Those will be targeted sanctions against individuals and entities that are owned or partially owned by the IRGC that are directly supporting terrorist activities.
On the overall approach that the Trump administration will now take forward — much to the chagrin of the international community and against Washington’s foreign policy consensus — Tillerson did not express abundant confidence that it will necessarily result in the desired outcome.
He did, though, say that other parties to the agreement are willing to at least have discussions. “I don’t want to suggest to you that we have a high chance of success,” he said. “But there is an openness to talk about it.”