The U.S. Is Testing Support for Extending Iran Nuclear Limits

  • State Department looks at uranium enrichment after 2025
  • Trump administration has until Oct. 15 to certify Iran deal

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is consulting U.S. allies in Europe as he seeks a way to toughen restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program a month before President Donald Trump faces a deadline to decide whether to walk away from what he’s called “the worst deal ever.”

U.S. diplomats have approached European officials to see if they would join in demanding an extension to limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment that are set to expire in 2025 and 2030 under the nuclear accord reached in 2015, according to people familiar with the discussions. 

The U.S. also has asked foreign ministers of nations that agreed to the deal to meet on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly debate in New York next week to discuss the agreement’s flaws, a senior State Department official said. The session has been agreed on for Sept. 20, according to a European diplomat. It would be Tillerson’s first encounter as the top U.S. diplomat with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Critics say the prospect that Iran could set its nuclear centrifuges spinning again with few restrictions within years is one of the accord’s weakest provisions. Tillerson, who has borne the brunt of Trump’s frustration for certifying the deal twice so far this year, has to make his recommendation to the president before Oct. 15, when Trump must again notify Congress whether Iran is complying with the accord.

Rex Tillerson

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The secretary of state and other top administration officials believe remaining in the deal would ultimately be better than quitting it because Iran is widely seen to be complying with the letter of the agreement it reached with the U.S. and five other world powers, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic efforts.

But they still have to convince Trump.

“If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July.

That’s produced a search for new options before the Oct. 15 deadline under a law requiring the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with the accord.

Read More: Iran Nuclear Inspections Doubled as Trump Questions Deal

Now, Tillerson is evaluating whether European allies -- to say nothing of China, Russia and Iran -- can be talked into expanding upon their deal, which took months of negotiations to complete during President Barack Obama’s administration.

With a broader Iran policy review under way in the administration, the consensus among Tillerson and other officials is to view the nuclear deal as one part of a broader strategy to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East, including its program to develop ballistic missiles, its sponsorship of terrorist groups and its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Separate Agreements

Rather than reopening the nuclear deal -- a prospect that other nations already have rejected -- the parties would seek a separate set of agreements to limit Iran’s access to ballistic missile technology and its uranium enrichment after “sunset” provisions in the accord start to take effect in 2025.

State Department and Pentagon officials have approached counterparts from France, Germany and the U.K., according to the people. The administration is also weighing whether to pressure the International Atomic Energy Agency to more rigorously enforce the current terms of the deal by gaining access to military sites.

“When we were doing the negotiations, everybody understood and agreed that the sunsets were problematic,” said Richard Nephew, who helped negotiate the original deal and is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest to hear people are saying this.”

Macron, Merkel

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said last month that the Iran agreement could be “supplemented” to address what happens after 2025 and deal with Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The idea may meet more skepticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who cited the “good end” reached in the Iran accord in an interview published this week, saying the approach could be replicated in talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

A European official, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private, described a visit by Americans as part of a listening tour on Iran policy and stressed there was no agreement. The official acknowledged that there may be ways to police the Iran deal more rigorously and said the accord is helpful because it averts a nuclear-armed Iran, while allowing the international community to focus on other issues.

“My sense is that it is well-understood in European capitals that the deal will need to be strengthened if it is to survive,” said Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think there is actually plenty of room to work out a mutually agreed policy going forward. Whatever tactical disagreements may exist between the U.S. and Europe, there remains a rough strategic consensus about Iran among the allies.”

Then There’s Iran

Russia and China have made clear they’d vehemently oppose any move to revisit the Iran deal, although U.S. officials are betting they’d acquiesce if European allies join in pressing for action.

And then there’s Iran, whose relations with the U.S. have only deteriorated further since Trump took office as his administration imposed more sanctions on the country to deter its involvement in Syria and punish it for pursuing a ballistic-missile program.

“This is not something we’re going to get for nothing,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “What’s the U.S. going to offer in return?”

On Wednesday, an Iranian government spokesman said the Islamic Republic expects other signatories to the deal “to be more active” in preserving it in the face of Trump’s opposition.

Iran could stick to the pact even if the U.S. were to exit, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht also told the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “The basis for us is to preserve our national interests,” he said.

Tillerson isn’t the only administration official exploring ways to finesse certifying the Iran deal. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, last week laid out a scenario under which Trump would keep the U.S. in the deal but refuse to certify Iran’s compliance with it, kicking the problem to Congress and forcing it to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were eased under the agreement.

People familiar with internal discussions said Haley’s team didn’t work out her speech with Tillerson and his staff in advance. The U.S. Mission to the UN responded in a statement that “of course, she and her team discussed the content with the White House” and through the “interagency” process.

Pushing a decision off on Congress would be similar to Trump’s recent moves on other key policies, including immigration, health care and tax reform.

“Under the law, Congress then has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran,” Haley told the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “During that time, Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity and its massive human-rights violations.”

— With assistance by Jonathan Tirone, Helene Fouquet, Thomas Penny, Katharina Rosskopf, Kambiz Foroohar, and Ladane Nasseri

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