WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump threatened to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement if Congress doesn’t amend an existing law in a way that changes U.S. commitments under the agreement ― a move that could in itself destroy the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” Trump said Friday in a speech from the White House. “It is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time.”
Under the 2015 JCPOA, negotiated between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries, Iran has significantly scaled back its nuclear program and allowed broad access to international inspectors in exchange for sanctions relief from the international community. Some of the restrictions on the number of centrifuges Iran can have spinning and the amount of uranium it can enrich will expire between 10 and 15 years from when the agreement was implemented.
Trump’s preference, he said Friday, is for Congress to revise an existing U.S. law in a way that makes those restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program permanent. The revised law would also reimpose sanctions that were lifted under the nuclear accord if Iran takes certain steps related to its ballistic missile program, Trump said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have already started drafting such legislation, working in coordination with the White House. It is unclear whether the envisioned legislation would have the votes to pass.
Democrats, including some who voted against implementing the deal in 2015, so far have lined up against the proposal.
Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed Trump’s Iran plan as an unrealistic attempt to unilaterally change the terms of an international agreement.
“The President’s plan doesn’t make sense. Negotiating additional terms to the nuclear deal requires a coalition of international partners, not unilateral congressional action,” Engel, who opposed the deal in 2015, said in a statement.
“I strongly disagree with the President’s reckless, political decision and his subsequent threat to Congress. At a moment when the United States and its allies face a nuclear crisis with North Korea, the President has manufactured a new crisis that will isolate us from our allies and partners, compromising our ability to employ a diplomatic surge on the Korean Peninsula,” said Rep. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who also previously opposed the Iran deal.
Calling on lawmakers to redefine the Iran deal, Cardin said, is reminiscent of how Trump handled immigration and health care policies. The president “is abdicating his leadership role to Congress, just like with Dreamers and just like with affirming and strengthening our health care system. It is a troubling pattern. We will not buy into the false premise that it is Congress’ role to legislate solutions to problems of his own making,” Cardin’s statement continued.
The key criticism against the Trump administration’s proposal is that it rests on the assumption the U.S. can unilaterally change its obligations under an international agreement without facing major blowback from Iran or any of the other countries who helped negotiate the deal.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry warned that it would consider the nuclear agreement null if it stops receiving the benefits it was guaranteed under the 2015 agreement. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not be the first to withdraw from the deal, but if its rights and interests in the deal are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The President’s gambit is irresponsible and dangerous,” Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in a statement. “Any attempt by the White House or Congress to unilaterally change the terms of the highly-successful nuclear deal with Iran risks setting Washington on a course to violate the deal.”
Trump’s speech follows a lengthy interagency review and months of speculation about whether he would scrap the nuclear deal or toss the decision to Congress. Throughout the review, Trump reportedly pressured his aides to come up with a way to leave the Iran deal ― even as members of his Cabinet recommended remaining party to the agreement.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified earlier this month that abiding by the agreement is consistent with U.S. national security interests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explicitly told reporters on Thursday, hours before Trump threatened to terminate the agreement, that the administration planned to remain in it.
The administration’s plan, previewed by Tillerson on Thursday, appeared to be a delicately crafted effort by Trump’s advisers to give him the chance to deliver a tough-sounding speech on Iran while tossing to Congress the consequential part of the decision about the nuclear accord’s future. Tillerson did not indicate on Thursday any plans for Trump to threaten to scuttle the agreement if he didn’t get his way with lawmakers.
Trump also appeared to go beyond what Tillerson had previewed on Thursday when he announced his decision to authorize the Treasury Department to sanction “the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism.”
Tillerson said Thursday the administration would sanction IRGC-linked individuals and entities but would avoid sanctioning the entire military group because of potential complications if U.S. troops encounter IRGC troops on the battlefield.
After months of waiving sanctions against Iran and certifying its compliance, Trump appeared to relish the opportunity to rail against what he described as a murderous “Iranian dictatorship.”
He spent the first several minutes of his speech listing various grievances against the Iranian regime: the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979, the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and Iran’s support for various terrorist groups that threaten the U.S.
Trump accused Iran of committing “multiple violations” of the nuclear agreement ― hours after Tillerson acknowledged Iran is “under technical compliance” with the terms of the JCPOA. The apparent violations Trump referred to have been described by experts as “minor infraction[s]” that were quickly rectified. The International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring the use of nuclear energy, has now confirmed Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal eight times.
Despite having the entire U.S. intelligence community at his disposal, Trump relied on vague assertions of Iranian wrongdoing to build his case.
“There are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea,” Trump said Friday, adding that he would direct the intelligence community to do a “thorough analysis” of the issue.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the U.S. negotiating team throughout the Iran deal talks, accused Trump of “creating an international crisis” and urged lawmakers to act as a bulwark against the president’s plan.
“President Trump’s decision today is dangerous,” Kerry said in a statement. “It’s a reckless abandonment of facts in favor of ego and ideology from a President who would rather play a high-stakes game of chicken with Congress and with Iran than admit that the nuclear agreement is working.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Iran’s Foreign Ministry and former Secretary of State John Kerry.