What you need to know ahead of Donald Trump's Iran deal deadline
Posted May 6, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT
President Donald Trump has long derided the Iran nuclear deal, calling it "insane," "ridiculous" and something that "should have never, ever been made."
The deal restricts certain Iranian nuclear activities for periods between 10 to 25 years, and allows for more intrusive, permanent monitoring. It also forbids Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons in the future. In exchange, Iran was relieved of crippling economic sanctions.
As a key May 12 deadline approaches, Trump must decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran, which could imperil the deal. That is, unless Congress and U.S. allies address what Trump describes as the deal's "disastrous flaws."
Here's what you need to know about what Trump wants, and what potential changes could mean for Iran's nuclear future.
What's the accord's status?
Known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement was signed in 2015 by the United States and Iran, plus China, Russia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
It requires the U.S. president to take certain steps from time to time to keep the country committed to its side of the bargain. Trump has already used these mechanisms to signal the United States' weakened commitment.
By law, the Trump administration must report to Congress every 90 days on whether Iran is complying with the deal, and if it's in the U.S. national security interest to continue sanctions relief.
In October 2017, Trump declined to certify the deal. He accused Iran of failing to live up to the "spirit" of the deal, and cited "multiple violations of the agreement." (We previously found that Iran had largely complied with the deal, aside from some minor infractions that were rectified.)
Decertifying the deal did not kill it. Rather, it opened the door for Congress to quickly reimpose sanctions, which lawmakers so far have declined to do.
In addition to keeping Congress informed, the deal requires that Trump periodically waive oil and bank sanctions -- so-called "secondary sanctions" -- that the agreement lifted.
Prior to the deal, American and international sanctions shackled the regime. From 2012-15, the Iranian economy shrank by 9 percent per year, oil exports fell by more than half and more than $120 billion held in overseas banks were frozen. Lifting sanctions spurred roughly 7 percent growth over the past two years, returned oil exports to nearly pre-sanctions levels and unfroze the country's foreign assets.
The next deadline for Trump to waive the secondary sanctions is May 12.
When he last waived sanctions in January, Trump warned it was "a last chance" to fix the deal's "terrible flaws" through additional measures.
"In the absence of such an agreement," Trump said Jan. 12, "the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal."
What does Trump see as the Iran deal's flaws? Trump has criticized the deal as weak, narrow and short-sighted.
Trump argues Tehran's long-range missile program should be viewed as part and parcel of a nuclear weapons program. He has hammered the deal for its "near total silence" on Iran's missile program, and repeatedly underscored the need to stop the country from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
He also wants international weapons inspectors to have greater access to Iranian military sites, where inspectors believe nuclear weapons-related activity may have been clandestinely carried out prior to the deal.
"The JCPOA provides for International Atomic Energy Agency access, but Iranian leaders have said that they will never grant access to military facilities," said Annie Fixler, a policy analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. "Reportedly, the agency has refrained from requesting access to suspicious sites because it is concerned that Iran will refuse."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on May 1 argued that Iran entered the Obama-era deal "on a completely false pretense" because the regime had lied about the extent of its nuclear capability. Sanders' statement came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar argument, citing a cache of seized Iranian documents.
Trump has also criticized the deal for failing to rein in Iran's fueling of sectarian violence in places like Syria and Yemen, despite the deal's promise to contribute to "regional and international peace and security." Trump slammed the so-called "sunset provisions," which allow certain restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to expire, rather than last indefinitely.
"In just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout," Trump said in an October speech laying out his Iran strategy. "In other words, we got weak inspections in exchange for no more than a purely short-term and temporary delay in Iran's path to nuclear weapons."
How could the deal be modified?
Trump has called on Congress and European allies to address what he considers to be the agreement's weaknesses.
He pushed for legislation that would set "trigger points," which if Iran reached, would automatically reimpose sanctions. These would aim to strengthen the current deal's enforcement, while expanding its scope to include Iran's missile program.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., released a draft bill that addressed Trump's concerns. But legislative efforts appear to have stalled.
Meanwhile, Trump in April played host to leaders of France and Germany, who have both tried to persuade the United States to remain a party to deal.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged Trump to stay in the deal while a supplemental agreement is hammered out. Macron's proposal would extend the joint agreement's limitations, stop Iran from developing ballistic missiles, and contain Iranian military activity in the region.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also embraced keeping the current pact while building toward a more comprehensive approach.
"This agreement is anything but perfect," Merkel said in an April 27 joint press conference alongside Trump. "It will not solve all the problems with Iran. It is one piece of the mosaic, one building block, if you like, on which we can build up this structure."
What are the odds of a new deal?
Frantic negotiations are playing out as the May 12 deadline nears, with the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom engaged in a last-ditch effort to keep the deal intact.
Experts we spoke to were divided on whether a supplemental deal could be reached.
Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said the U.S. strategy has been to get the Europeans, or E3 countries, on board with a renegotiation, before trying to convince Russia and China to follow suit. The next move would be to have all six powers pressure Iran to come to the table.
"Europe appears to be persuaded, Russia has an economic incentive to limit Iran's program so it can provide commercial nuclear fuel services, and China doesn't have a strong stake one way or another," Kroenig said.
Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University, was less optimistic about the chance of closing a deal that would satisfy Trump's terms.
"It is a tall order and it isn't even clear that Trump will accept what his team negotiates," he said.
Even if the other parties agree to it, there's no guarantee Iran will abide by a new agreement.
"If Iran views the arrangement as violating the deal or impeding sanctions relief, Tehran may retaliate by resuming nuclear activities under the accord," said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. "Iranian officials have clearly stated Iran is keeping its options open."
What happens if no new deal is struck?
If no "fix" emerges by May 12, there's a likelihood Trump would allow sanctions to resume on Iranian oil and the country's central bank.
Trump could try to enforce the banking sanctions immediately, or try to phase in sanctions punishment in another last ditch effort to get a deal, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation to Defend Democracy.
If no deal is reached, "there is a real possibility Trump will not renew sanctions waivers as required by the nuclear deal, and put the United States in violation of the agreement," Davenport said. "The United States not only risks the nuclear deal that is effectively limiting Iran's nuclear program, but also U.S. credibility in future negotiations."
Trump's recent personnel moves may have bolstered White House opposition to the Iran deal. He replaced national security adviser H.R. McMaster with former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo. Public statements suggest the incoming officials are more open than their predecessors to withdrawing from the agreement.
If that scenario plays out, Iran may have an easier path to develop a nuclear weapon, Kroenig said.
"The limits on Iran's deal expire in several years," he added, "at which point its breakout time to build nuclear weapons -- in the words of former President Obama -- 'shrink almost down to zero.' "
Contact John Kruzel at email@example.com. Follow @johnkruzel.