By Andrew BEATTY
Washington (AFP) Oct 12, 2017
Donald Trump will unveil a more aggressive strategy to check Iran's growing might Friday, withdrawing presidential backing for a landmark nuclear deal and targeting the country's missile program and militia proxies.
During a White House speech at 12:45 pm (1645 GMT), Trump is expected to declare a 2015 deal, which curbed Iran's nuclear program in return for massive sanctions relief, is no longer in the US national interest.
Officials say he will not kill the deal outright, or designate Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization -- a move that would almost certainly bring retaliatory action.
Instead he will leave US lawmakers to decide whether they want to kick away one of the accords foundational pillars by "snapping back" sanctions against Iran.
Many lawmakers are waiting to see how Trump presents the choice, with no clear consensus even among Republicans on whether to torpedo the agreement.
In a statement to AFP, leading Republican Senator Marco Rubio described the accord as "fatally-flawed" and said he was open to legislation that would "substantially improve America's ability to counter Iran's nuclear, terrorism, militancy and regional threats."
While Trump's decision is largely rhetorical -- designed to meet a key campaign pledge -- it risks unpicking years of careful diplomacy and increasing Middle East tensions.
The agreement was signed between Iran and six world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US -- at talks coordinated by the European Union.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent much of the week on the telephone, talking through a decision that is deeply unpopular with allies.
UN nuclear inspectors say Iran is meeting the technical requirements of its side of the bargain, dramatically curtailing its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
So, while US officials still insist that "America First" does not mean "America Alone," on this issue they are starkly isolated. The other signatories all back the deal.
"This is the worst deal. We got nothing," Trump thundered to Fox News on Wednesday. "We did it out of weakness when actually, we have great strength."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at US counterpart saying he was opposing "the whole world" by trying to abandon a landmark nuclear agreement.
"It will be absolutely clear which is the lawless government. It will be clear which country is respected by the nations of the world and global public opinion," he added.
Trump, whose address to this year's UN General Assembly was a hymn to national sovereignty, has been railing against the Iran deal since before he was elected.
- Allies pleading -
In office, he has chafed at being required under US law to re-certify Iran's compliance with the accord every 90 days, declaring that Tehran has broken it "in spirit."
Now, as he prepares to roll out the broader US strategy to combat Iran's expanding power in the Middle East, he feels the time has come to turn his back on the deal.
Right up until the last minute, America's closest allies have urged Trump to think again.
After his nationalist UN speech, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the deal "doesn't belong to one country... it belongs to the international community."
US allies have not been convinced by the argument that the deal fell short because it left Iran free to develop ballistic missiles and sponsor proxy militias in its region.
"Mixing everything means risking everything," a French diplomatic source told AFP. "The existential threat is the bomb. The nuclear deal is not meant to solve Lebanon's problems."
Europe fears not only that Iran will resume the quest for the bomb but that the US is relinquishing its leadership role in a stable, rules-based international system.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May called the White House to impress upon it her government's "strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners."
In parallel, her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, told his US counterpart Tillerson "that the nuclear deal was an historic achievement."
"It was the culmination of 13 years of painstaking diplomacy and has increased security, both in the region and in the UK," he argued.
But the US administration barely acknowledged the calls, and European diplomats in Washington privately complain that their message is not getting through.
- 'We will see' -
One Western diplomat said that once Trump "decertifies" the deal their efforts will move to Congress, where they will urge US lawmakers not to re-impose sanctions.
They will find some sympathetic ears in Congress but this won't move Trump. His most senior foreign policy advisers have also urged him to back the deal, to no avail.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was asked whether he believes the Iran deal remains in the US national interest.
"Yes, senator, I do," he replied.
"I believe at this point in time, absent indication to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with."
On Thursday, in another dramatic sign of Washington's foreign policy direction, the US announced that it was withdrawing from the United Nations science and cultural organization UNESCO.
France's UN ambassador expressed dismay, warning "we need an America that stays committed to world affairs."
Washington's concerns with the Iran nuclear deal
The accord still has many fierce supporters, particularly among veterans of Barack Obama's former administration, but the views of anti-Iran hawks have gained ground.
Washington's European allies and even some of Trump's most senior American advisers still think the deal is the best way to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But Trump's willingness to cast aside Washington foreign policy orthodoxy and denunciate the accord as an "embarrassment" have opened space for counter arguments.
These are the main concerns of the deal's critics:
- The 'sunset clause' -
For US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the relatively short timeframe of the accord is its most "glaring flaw."
From 2025, technical controls on Iran's ability to refine nuclear fuel will begin to fall away. Deal critics fear that will leave Iran on the threshold of building a bomb.
Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants the underlying deal preserved at all costs, admits that the "sunset" should be addressed in a supplemental accord.
- Limited inspections -
Washington's outspoken ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has pushed hard on the question of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The UN watchdog is responsible for reporting to the signatories of the deal -- Iran and six world powers -- on whether Tehran is in technical compliance.
So far, it has confirmed that it is, apart from a small number of infractions that have been remedied, but Haley has suggested Iran is barring access to secret sites.
Iran has refused to allow access to military bases not declared as part of its nuclear program, but the US has not provided evidence that Tehran has a covert operation.
- Deal 'too big to fail' -
Another Haley turn of phrase, this encapsulates the idea that the Obama administration was so concerned to preserve the deal that it refused to press Tehran on its other sins.
And by reopening economic and financial ties, the deal created potential costs in terms of lost contracts for European banks and exporters if it was to collapse.
Thus nervousness about offending Tehran and collapsing the accord has made the West reluctant to call out Iranian meddling in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, hawks argue.
- Rocket men -
Architects of the accord insist today that it was only meant to halt Iran's nuclear program, even if some then sold it as part of a rebalancing of Middle East ties.
So it does not tackle Iran's ballistic missile program, which continues apace, despite separate US Security Council sanctions and condemnations.
"The JCPOA represents only a small part of the many issues that we need to deal with when it comes to the Iranian relationship," Tillerson recently said of the accord.
"And I've said many times we cannot let the Iranian relationship be defined solely by that nuclear agreement."
UN Security Council resolution 2231 adopted the Joint Comprehensive plan of Action (JCPOA) into international law, but went further, calling on Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
Washington therefore argues that even if the JCPOA did not deal with the ballistic threat, UN members intended a missile ban to be within the "spirit" of the broader deal.
- Regional troublemaker -
The spirit of the deal, Trump's administration argues further, was that it would not only halt Iran's nuclear ambition but stop it from destabilizing its neighbors.
The preamble says the signatories "anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security."
Supporters of the deal insist the preamble is not legally enforceable, but Tillerson and other US officials have cited it to criticize Iran's ongoing subversive role.
Berlin (AFP) Oct 8, 2017
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Sunday that he feared US President Donald Trump would quit the Iran nuclear deal next week. Trump is a stern critic of the 2015 accord, which he has called "the worst deal ever", and US officials say he intends to tell US Congress next week that Tehran is not honouring its side of the bargain. "The United States is likely to quit the Iran agree ... read more
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