Trump Bets Sanctions Will Force Iran to Bargain. There’s No Plan B.
Posted May 9, 2018 9:13 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he expects Iran to continue to comply with the terms of the 2015 deal that limits Tehran’s nuclear program, even as the United States violates it by reimposing what he called “among the strongest sanctions that we’ve ever put on a country.”
“I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program,” Trump told reporters in a vague warning at the White House, a day after he withdrew the United States from the accord that was brokered between Iran and world powers.
Beyond betting that Iran’s leaders will return to the negotiating table, and seek a better deal, once they feel the sanctions’ bite, the president appeared to acknowledge that he has no Plan B for dealing with Tehran.
“Iran will come back and say, ‘We don’t want to negotiate,'” Trump told reporters. “And of course, they’re going to say that. And if I were in their position, I’d say that, too, for the first couple of months: ‘We’re not going to negotiate.'”
“But they’ll negotiate, or something will happen,” Trump said. “And hopefully that won’t be the case.”
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said Tuesday that he had instructed his foreign minister to determine if negotiators from European nations, Russia and China could make up for the economic benefits that Iran would lose after the U.S. withdrawal.
Only then would he decide, Rouhani said, whether to instruct Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to resume the enrichment of uranium. Under the accord, Iran is prohibited through 2030 from possessing enough nuclear fuel to manufacture a single nuclear weapon.
On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately approved the terms of the 2015 deal, declared that his country will need 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity for its power grid. He did not explicitly suggest resuming uranium enrichment, but for years Iran insisted that its nuclear program was for civilian use — even though it was already buying fuel from Russia to power its one major reactor.
After Trump announced his decision, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany on Tuesday reaffirmed their support for a U.N. Security Council resolution that formally endorsed the accord. The European leaders asserted that the resolution was the applicable international law governing the Iranian nuclear problem — a way of suggesting that the United States was the first country to violate the accord.
They also noted that Trump’s own intelligence officials — including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when he was serving as CIA director — have said he saw no evidence that Iran had violated the deal.
A senior U.S. diplomat, Andrew Peek, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, denied on Wednesday that the United States had violated the resolution. “We are withdrawing from the deal,” he said. “We are not breaching it.”
Peek went on to argue that greater pressure — chiefly economic — would force Iran “to change some of its behavior.”
At the core of the pressure campaign is Trump’s threat to impose sanctions on any firm — from oil field developers to large banks — that does business with Iran. That technique helped bring the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place. But back then, the Europeans had joined with Washington in a coordinated sanctions effort.
In this case, the Europeans are looking to defeat Trump’s threatened sanctions.
“The Europeans will protect their companies from secondary sanctions and are likely to build a payments system that circumvents the dollar,” said Kori Schake, the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading think tank in London.
Even Republicans who had their qualms about the shortcomings of the nuclear deal — especially its “sunset clauses” that gave Iran the right to produce nuclear fuel after 2030 — expressed concern that the White House appeared more interested in scrapping the accord than coming up with a comprehensive way to deal with Tehran.
“Ironically, first by emphasizing the need to fix the agreement, and now in insisting that a new deal be negotiated, Trump risks repeating the error,” Michael Singh, who dealt with Iran issues during the George W. Bush administration, wrote Wednesday in Foreign Affairs.
Trump’s approach to Iran is hardly surprising. His European allies became convinced in recent weeks that the president’s chief objection to the nuclear deal was that it was a creation of the Obama administration. They concluded that Trump was not interested in trying to reopen negotiations with Tehran but wanted to give it a series of ultimatums.
In doing so, Trump made clear that the agreement needed to be scrapped before anything new could be constructed. The details of what might replace it were vague; State Department officials offered no outline, other than to say any new accord must also deal with Iran’s missile activity and its support of terrorism.
One official said that John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has argued that the Iranians will simply fold under enough pressure. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Few in the Pentagon expect the Iranians to back down. Intelligence analysts expect that Iran will grow more active in Syria and Iraq, in part to make the United States and its allies pay a price.
And cyberexperts warned that Iran, which used cyberweapons to attack U.S. banks and other financial institutions in 2012 and 2013, would almost certainly be back with new strikes aimed at targets in the United States.
“Before the nuclear agreement, Iranian actors carried out several attacks against the West,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm. “There were also clear signs these actors were probing Western critical infrastructure in multiple industries for future attack.”
He said that “with the dissolution of the agreement, we anticipate that Iranian cyberattacks will once again threaten Western critical infrastructure.”