Trump issues warning, but continues to honor Iran deal

President Donald Trump on Friday avoided upending the nuclear deal with Iran that he has repeatedly disparaged, agreeing to waive key sanctions the US lifted as part of the deal.

But Trump warned Friday in a statement that the waiver — which must be issued every 120 days to keep the sanctions from kicking back in — will be the last he issues and he delivered a stark ultimatum to European allies on Friday: “Fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw.”

“I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal. This is a last chance,” Trump said in a statement Friday. “In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”

That threat to effectively pull the US from the deal if his latest demands are not met leaves the nuclear deal in its most precarious position yet since the landmark agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions was brokered between the US, five other world powers and Iran in July 2015. And Trump warned Friday that “no one should doubt my word.”

Trump coupled his waiver announcement with new sanctions on 14 Iranian individuals and entities that have committed human rights abuses or supported the country’s ballistic missile programs, which are outside the scope of the nuclear deal. Many of those sanctions — including one targeted at the head of Iran’s judiciary — were in response to the Iranian government’s crackdown of peaceful protests that have swept the country in recent weeks.

Trump agreed to waive the sanctions at the urging of his top national security and foreign policy advisers, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who warned Trump that re-imposing the sanctions would likely be viewed by Iran and European allies as the US breaking its commitments under the deal, officials familiar with the matter said. US allies, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron who spoke with Trump on Thursday, also urged the US President to stick with the nuclear deal.

But he only agreed to waive the sanctions after lawmakers also assured him they are making progress on delivering a legislative fix that will strengthen the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. A senior administration official told reporters Friday the White House wants to amend that law to meet a series of the President’s demands, including provisions to address the timeliness of inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites and the “sunset clauses” in the nuclear deal that critics worry will allow Iran to return to its nuclear activities after a period of time.

The decision Friday is the second time Trump has agreed to issue the sanctions waiver and the latest instance in which Trump has declined to seize an opportunity to break up the Iran deal — disappointing some of the hardline opponents of the agreement who hoped Trump would follow through on his campaign promise to tear up the deal.

Trump in October declined to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, accusing it of committing “multiple violations of the agreement,” but stopped short of calling on Congress to re-impose the sanctions the US lifted under the terms of the agreement with Iran. Congress did not seek to re-impose those sanctions after Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal — a determination the President must make every 90 days.

Pressuring Europeans for a new side agreement

But Trump made clear Friday that the fate of the nuclear deal rests in the ability of the US and its European partners to establish new “triggers” that would snap back sanctions against Iran aimed at further constraining its nuclear activity as well as its ballistic missile program, which is not covered under the nuclear deal.

A senior administration official said the new triggers would be aimed at ensuring Iran’s nuclear capabilities remain at more than one year from obtaining a nuclear weapon and prevent Iran from obtaining them beyond the 15-year time frame established under the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.

“He intends to work with our European partners on some kind of follow-on agreement that enshrines certain triggers that the Iranian regime cannot exceed,” the official said. “If the President can get that agreement that meets his objectives and that never expires … that denies Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon — but forever, not for 10 years or any shorter period of time — he would be open to remaining in such a modified deal.”

Trump laid out that message unambiguously in his statement Friday and warned European allies who would not agree to the side accord his administration is seeking that they would be “siding with the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions, and against the people of Iran and the peaceful nations of the world.”

Critics of the President’s approach warned Friday that establishing a side agreement with European allies could undermine the current agreement and some expressed concern that Trump’s threat risks isolating the United States.

“The Trump administration’s policy announced today sets impossible standards that would ultimately isolate the United States rather than isolating the regime in Tehran. That scenario would allow Iran to rush headlong toward a bomb while harming American credibility and leadership on the global stage,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

But Trump’s announcement Friday was also hailed by critics of the Iran deal and those who have urged the Trump administration to bring allies to the table to fix the deal.

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has advised the White House on the matter, said European allies shouldn’t doubt Trump’s resolve and argued it is in “everyone’s interest” to improve the deal before the 120-day deadline Trump has now imposed.

“He is prepared to cancel the deal and unleash the power of US secondary sanctions to keep European banks and companies out of Iran. That’s a transatlantic blowup that everyone should be eager to avoid,” Dubowitz said.

Dubowitz also dismissed criticism that the secondary agreement Trump was seeking with European allies would undermine the JCPOA, arguing instead that the “greatest danger” is the Iranian government taking advantage of the flaws of the current nuclear agreement.

New sanctions

The new sanctions Trump approved on Friday target 14 individuals and entities who the US said have committed human rights abuses or supported the country’s ballistic missile program.

The most prominent of the US targets in the latest sanctions announced Friday is Sadeq Larijani, the head of Iran’s judicial system, a high-level official whose targeting could have “serious political impact inside Iran,” a senior Trump administration official predicted. Senior administration officials said Larijani has overseen the sentencing and execution of juveniles in Tehran.

The sanctions also targeted two other Iranian officials whom the administration said are responsible for ordering abuses against citizens, including the denial of medical care and access to legal representation for protesters in Iranian jails.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Electronic Warfare and Cyber Defense Organization were each labeled for acting in behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The Treasury Department also designated two Iranian defense industry firms that provide key maintenance and overhaul services for the military’s helicopter and aircraft.

“The United States will not stand by while the Iranian regime continues to engage in human rights abuses and injustice,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday in a statement. “We are also targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and destabilizing activities, which it continues to prioritize over the economic well-being of the Iranian people.”

They represented the latest effort by the administration to spotlight the protests that erupted several weeks ago in Iranian cities and condemn the Iranian government’s efforts to suppress those protests.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the title of Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.