0511 GMT January 20, 2019
President Trump kept the Iran nuclear deal alive on Thursday as a critical deadline lapsed, a sign that he is stepping back from his threat to abandon an agreement he repeatedly disparaged. He is moving instead to push back on Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East in other ways.
Thursday’s congressionally imposed deadline, to renew an exemption to sanctions on Iran suspended under the 2015 deal, was significant because had the president reimposed economic punishments on Iran, he would have effectively violated the accord, allowing Tehran to walk away and ending the agreement. But Mr. Trump was convinced by top cabinet members and aides that he would also blow up alliances and free Iran to produce nuclear weapons material.
The move was more consequential than the decision the president faces in October about whether to recertify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the deal, which has no effect on the nuclear agreement itself.
Though Mr. Trump insisted that he has not settled on an overall Iran strategy and that he would announce one next month, administration officials said they were already trying to refocus on using military and economic leverage to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
The approach, which aides said Mr. Trump came to reluctantly in a series of National Security Council meetings, is part of a pattern that has emerged in the president’s attempts to keep his campaign promises. Falling short in some cases, including on his hard line on immigration, Mr. Trump has portrayed the outcome as consistent with his stated objectives.
Returning to Washington on Air Force One on Thursday after touring hurricane-ravaged South Florida, Mr. Trump again criticized the Iran agreement, but he talked around the question of whether he would adhere to it. Instead, he promised other action against Iran.
“We are not going to stand for what they’re doing to this country,” he told reporters. “They have violated so many different elements, but they’ve also violated the spirit of that deal. And you will see what we’ll be doing in October. It will be very evident.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency has said Iran has complied with its commitments under the arrangement, including inspections.
An approach that stops short of leaving the agreement is unlikely to satisfy its conservative critics, who attacked it as president Barack Obama’s cave-in to Iran, an American adversary of nearly four decades. Nor does it promise to satisfy those who see the deal as a building block for engagement with Iran.
Even Washington’s closest ally, Britain, has openly split with those in the administration arguing to ditch the accord. At a news conference in London on Thursday with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, noted that “the North Korea crisis shows the importance of having arrangements such as the JCPOA,” using the acronym for the formal name of the agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
He called it “a position you and I have both adopted,” underscoring Mr. Tillerson’s now widely acknowledged disagreement with Mr. Trump over the importance of the deal.
Mr. Johnson added that in Iran, “a country of 80 million people, many of them young, potentially liberal, could be won over — could be won over to a new way of thinking.” He said that Iranians should see the economic benefits of the nuclear deal and that he had emphasized the point to Mr. Tillerson and other American officials.
Mr. Trump’s gradual movement on Iran has been seen as a bellwether of a foreign policy shift underway in the White House, especially since the ouster of Stephen K. Bannon, his former strategist. Mr. Bannon had made confrontation with China and Iran a central element of his approach to reasserting American pre-eminence around the world.
Two of the president’s remaining advisers, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, are known for hawkish views on Iran. But they do not bring to the debate a sense that the United States is engaged in a clash of civilizations against the country or its ideology.
The Treasury Department did announce new economic sanctions on Thursday against individuals associated with Iran’s Islamic RevolutionW Guards Corps, the Quds Force, and companies involved in allegedly hacking against American financial institutions in 2011 and 2012.
In announcing the new sanctions, a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity while briefing a large group of reporters, said that over the past few years, the United States had focused too narrowly on nuclear issues and ignored Iran’s some other activities.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted on Thursday that the agreement he reached with his counterpart at the time, Secretary of State John Kerry, was not renegotiable. “A ‘better’ deal is pure fantasy,” he wrote. “About time for U.S. to stop spinning and begin complying, just like Iran.”
Mr. Zarif will be in New York next week for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, as will Mr. Tillerson. The two men have never met, nor talked, and there are no plans to change that.
Mr. Trump plans to make concerted moves against Iran and North Korea, a centerpiece of his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, administration officials say. But it is unclear how specific he will get.
Kenneth M. Pollack, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said that the Trump administration officials appear to have concluded that rather than unravel the deal, they need to find ways to renegotiate elements of it.
Mr. Tillerson has argued that it is possible to both retain the existing deal and get allies on board for extending the duration of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, while negotiating over Iran’s development and testing of ballistic missiles.
But he is clearly walking a fine line. It is possible, White House officials say, that Mr. Trump will stop short of blowing up the accord but still insist on declaring to Congress next month that Iran is violating its terms. Such a move would not affect the future of the agreement itself, while a reimposition of congressional sanctions would have violated its terms.
The above was excerpted from The New York Times.