World News

Trump’s Demand to Rewrite Iran Deal Tests a Weakened Diplomatic Corps

Posted January 12, 2018 9:31 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2018 9:37 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, by demanding Friday that European allies agree to rewrite the Iran nuclear deal within 120 days or he will kill it, set himself a diplomatic challenge that would be formidable even for an administration with a deep bench of experienced negotiators.

For Trump, who has filled his national security ranks with retired military officers and allowed his State Department to languish, the challenge is even more profound. And it is not limited to Iran: The North Korea crisis has taken a sudden turn toward diplomacy, with the unexpected opening of talks between the North and the South.

On both fronts, current and former officials say, the Trump administration is being forced to rethink strategies that had been driven largely by military considerations. Many say the White House is ill equipped to deal with the prospect of a South Korean détente with the North’s Kim Jong Un or the recent eruption of political unrest in Iran.

The anti-government protests in Iran have complicated Trump’s calculations about whether to rip up the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, several officials said. While the unrest has made the president even more determined to punish the Iranian leadership, it has also reinforced the conviction of European leaders that the deal should be preserved.

On Friday, Trump grudgingly agreed not to reimpose comprehensive sanctions that would have broken apart the deal. But he gave European allies only four months to agree to a stricter “follow on” agreement, warning that he would pull the United States out of it without one.

He also ordered targeted sanctions against the head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, a powerful figure whom the administration holds culpable for the violent crackdown on the protests, as well as against an Iranian cyberwarfare unit it accuses of internet censorship.

The nuclear deal, Trump said, drove Iranians into the streets because the government misused the proceeds from the lifting of sanctions. “It has served as a slush fund for weapons, terror and oppression, and to further line the pockets of corrupt regime leaders,” he said in a statement.

But that is precisely why European leaders argue that keeping the deal in place makes even more sense now: because it keeps a harsh spotlight on Iran’s leaders, and their malfeasance, rather than allowing the Iranians to paint the United States and its allies as the villains.

Diplomats from several European countries said renegotiating the deal was a nonstarter. The best Trump could hope for, one official said, would be a commitment from Europe to begin work on a new and separate agreement. Such a step, they said, would require the participation of China and Russia, which are also signatories to the deal, as well as Iran itself — something the White House ruled out.

“If we want seriously to be able to raise the price to the Iranians of what they are doing internally and externally, we need the Europeans,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former adviser to President Barack Obama who helped devise his Iran policy. “But if they think that we are only interested in walking away from the nuclear deal, they won’t join us.”

The administration, other experts said, is locked into a policy that has two major pillars: dismantling Obama’s nuclear deal and confronting Iran on its aggression in the region, through its support of militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and other proxies in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

That is not surprising, given that the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, are former commanders who served in Iraq and blame Iran for the death of American soldiers there. Even below that level, the administration’s Iran policy is heavily influenced by the military. Joel Rayburn, the top Iran policymaker at the National Security Council, is a former military intelligence officer, as is Andrew L. Peek, a senior Iran policymaker at the State Department. Several of the department’s nonmilitary Iran experts have been pushed out in recent months.

Now, the administration is suddenly grappling with an Iranian government that is weakened and divided by the protests — a political development the Americans did not anticipate.

“When you’re dealing with Iran’s regional affairs, you’re dealing with how it supplies proxies and militias,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked in the Obama administration. “If you’re thinking about Iran’s internal problems, that is a more difficult problem. You’re thinking about fissures, and how to exploit them.”

Takeyh said Obama was similarly caught off guard in 2009 by the protests that became known as the Green Movement. At the time, he was trying to entice Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, into talks. That is one reason he reacted so little to those protests — a reaction Trump criticized in his statement Friday.

Ideally, Ross said, policy toward Iran would be a mix of coercive measures and diplomatic inducements. “With Obama, one could argue that the coercive part of the equation was not believable,” he said. “With Trump, the diplomatic side of the equation may prove not to be believable.”

The White House appears to recognize the weakness in its diplomatic ranks. It is considering the appointment of a special envoy for Iran, who could negotiate with the Europeans on the nuclear deal, as well as marshal a stronger response to Iran’s behavior in the region.

Any envoy would face a tough task: Administration officials said Trump was demanding an agreement that would eliminate all “sunset clauses,” under which Iran can resume activities like enriching uranium, and would explicitly link its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Iran fought against both of these demands in the negotiations that led to the 2015 deal.

With North Korea, the administration’s policy has been more balanced between diplomacy and military planning. But the talks between the Koreas have undermined Trump’s strategy, which is to impose maximum pressure on Pyongyang — including the threat of a military strike — to pressure Kim into giving up his nuclear arsenal.

The White House has sent McMaster and the National Security Council’s top Asia policymaker, Matthew Pottinger, to San Francisco, where they will meet with their counterparts from South Korea and Japan to discuss the implications of the North-South dialogue.

McMaster has spoken publicly about the need to prepare for a “preventive war” against North Korea. Pottinger, a retired Marine, also has a background in military intelligence, though at other times, he worked as a journalist and for a hedge fund.

White House officials are deeply skeptical of the overture from Kim to South Korea. They say he is trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. And they have urged the South Koreans to keep the exchanges limited to narrow issues, like security at the coming Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.

Trump, however, appears caught between continuing to heap ridicule on Kim and taking credit for the diplomatic opening. At Camp David last weekend, the president said he hoped the talks ranged far beyond the Olympics, and he backed them in a call with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in. The trajectory of the talks may be out of Trump’s control anyway, according to experts on the region. Moon was elected on a platform of reducing tensions with the North. Young South Koreans, in particular, view Trump’s threats of war on North Korea with alarm — sometimes even more than the danger posed by Kim.

“The North Korea issue may be entering a new phase,” said Evan S. Medeiros, the top Asia adviser in Obama’s National Security Council. “Moon’s agenda and perceptions seem to be evolving, and, as cynical as we all are about North Korea, it is worth asking the question: Is Kim actually looking for a negotiated off-ramp, and what would such behavior look like?”

“Is the Trump administration, which has understandably focused on coercive tools to date, nimble enough to respond to this evolution?” he said.