BRUSSELS — Having apparently lost the fight to dissuade President Trump from decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, the European countries that signed the pact are now looking to the United States Congress as a last chance to preserve the treaty and some shred of Western unity.
Mr. Trump, who has described the deal as “disastrous” and “the worst deal ever,” must decide by mid-October whether to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement — something he has done only reluctantly twice before.
Reports from Washington suggest that Mr. Trump will in fact decertify the deal, overruling his own national security team, but at the same time quietly encourage Congress not to reimpose punitive economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the accord.
European diplomats say the European nations that signed the accord are hoping to use the same arguments that failed to sway the president as they press American lawmakers to preserve an agreement that they see as essential to maintaining regional stability. They contend that the North Korean nuclear crisis is difficult enough without starting a new one unnecessarily, that American credibility is at stake and that Western division over Iran can only benefit Russia.
Iran, for its part, is in full compliance with the deal, senior European diplomats say. But they note that some in the Trump administration are using a preamble to the agreement that Iran itself desired to argue that Tehran is not in compliance with “the spirit” of the agreement. As evidence, they point to Tehran’s missile program and its military support for the Lebanese Shiite militia group operating in Syria, Hezbollah.
Mr. Trump cannot wreck the nuclear deal with a stroke of the pen. If he refuses to certify it, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions. Even if that happens, a dispute resolution process written into the deal provides another month before it is clear that the United States is no longer a party to an agreement accepted by its main allies, the rest of the United Nations Security Council and Iran.
Traditionally, opposition to Iran runs deep in Congress, even among many Democrats. But there are indications that Congress has little appetite to reimpose sanctions, and analysts have said that if Mr. Trump quietly asks Republican hawks on Iran, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to hold off, they probably would.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came out publicly on Tuesday in favor of sticking with the deal, while saying that Iran continued to support terrorism and was failing to comply with what he called “the spirit” of the agreement. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson also supports the agreement, though his differences with President Trump have exploded into view lately.
Reports in Washington nevertheless suggest that Mr. Tillerson and others around the president are working on a plan under which Mr. Trump would decertify Iran, but Congress would not reimpose sanctions. After that, Congress would rescind the current law requiring Mr. Trump to issue an opinion on Iran’s compliance every 90 days.
Instead, the administration would work with Congress and the Europeans to toughen other sanctions against Iran for its other troublesome activities, including new sanctions against its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, headed by hard-line military commanders and an important economic driver of the Iranian economy.
Mr. Tillerson floated the idea to European counterparts at the United Nations last month, a meeting the Europeans orchestrated so that China spoke first of its support for retaining the deal, and then Russia, before the Europeans did.
The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed in July 2015 by the five permanent members of the Security Council – Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain – plus Germany; the European Union led the negotiations and did a lot of the legwork.
It was devised to ensure that Iran could not build a nuclear bomb, which Iran has said it never intended to do, by severely limiting uranium enrichment for weapons purposes and eliminating the production of plutonium, while allowing for intrusive new inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure compliance. In return, punitive economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union were lifted.
The I.A.E.A. has certified Iran’s compliance with up to 400 inspections so far, including 25 unannounced inspections, the diplomats said.
Mr. Trump has twice certified Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal, first in April and then in July, but only after telling his national security team that he was very unhappy with doing so and wanted more options.
Trump supporters like John R. Bolton, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, have urged Mr. Trump simply to abandon the deal. Mr. Trump “should cut and cut cleanly,” Mr. Bolton argued recently in The Wall Street Journal. “The ayatollahs are using Mr. Obama’s handiwork to legitimize their terrorist state, facilitate (and conceal) their continuing nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs, and acquire valuable resources from gullible negotiating partners.”
He argued against the reported Tillerson compromise, calling it “too cute by half.”
For Pierre Vimont, a former senior European diplomat and French ambassador to Washington, what is at stake is a larger effort to manage and limit Iranian influence in the Middle East – the very issue that drives Mr. Trump and Washington’s Sunni allies.
“The Sunnis say they are more concerned about Iranian influence generally than the nuclear program,” Mr. Vimont said, “and the nuclear deal was part of the whole process to bring Iran back to a better path.
“But if you start with the Americans decertifying and more sanctions, it’s a field day for the extremists in Iran, for the Revolutionary Guard, and the supreme leader will back them, and we fear that any hope to bring more stability in the region will vanish.”
There is also the question of American credibility and reliability, Mr. Vimont said, pointing to North Korea and Russia. Already, he noted, traditional American allies like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are exploring better ties with Moscow, which is seen as “more predictable, more serious and more rational” now than Washington, he said.
The European diplomats also say that decertifying the Iran deal would complicate matters with North Korea. The North would be far less likely to negotiate a dismantling or a halt to its own overtly military nuclear program if the UnIted States failed to keep its commitments in the Iran deal.
“What kind of signal would this send to countries like North Korea?” asked Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States, during an appearance in Washington where he was joined by his counterparts from Britain, France and the European Union in strongly backing the Iran nuclear agreement. “It would send a signal that diplomacy is not reliable, that you can’t trust diplomatic agreements, and that would affect, I believe, our credibility in the West when we’re not honoring an agreement that Iran has not violated.”
There are “larger issues” at stake, Mr. Wittig said, including an increased danger that Iran would resume uranium enrichment, the risk of a nuclear arms race in an unstable region and the impact on global nonproliferation efforts.
In sum, said David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, “We agree that the demise of this agreement would be a major loss.”
Source : The New York Times