Photographer: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg

How Trump Wants to Build a New Iran Nuclear Deal


Donald Trump has been complaining about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal since before he became the U.S. president in January. As a candidate, he promised to upend the agreement, in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions related to it. Now Trump has adopted a policy of opposing the deal while keeping the U.S. in it, for the time being, by refusing to certify to Congress that it serves U.S. interests. Trump’s move is part of a broader plan to win further concessions from Iran on its nuclear program and to more generally curtail what his administration sees as the country’s malign behavior.

1. What’s the certification process?

Notably it’s not part of the agreement with Iran, which was negotiated with China, France, Russia, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. Rather, it’s part of a law passed by the U.S. Congress, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, according to which the president must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement and that waiving nuclear-related sanctions serves U.S. national security interests. Trump took that step twice since his inauguration but announced that he wouldn’t do so a third time in advance of an Oct. 15 deadline.

2. Has Iran stuck to the accord?

Assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency since the deal took effect have found Iran sticking to its obligations. In October 2016, Iran slightly surpassed a limit on its stockpiles of heavy water, which is used in medical imaging and can also fuel reactors that produce plutonium, a weapons material. But it addressed that within weeks by shipping the surplus to Oman.

3. So what’s Trump’s argument?

Trump focused on the part of the U.S. law that asks him to certify that suspending sanctions is “appropriate and proportionate” to Iran’s moves to end its nuclear program. He noted Iran’s development of its ballistic missile program and its support of terrorism. Those issues aren’t part of the nuclear agreement, and Iran remains under separate U.S. sanctions related to them. But Trump suggested Iran’s behavior lays out a “path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat” that the country will produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

4. What are the risks of not certifying?

It allows Congress to try to reimpose the nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted so Iran could rebuild its economy. The nuclear agreement states that Iran would regard such an action as “grounds to cease performing its commitments.” Iran has said it would resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, banned under the deal because such material can rapidly be further enriched to weapons-grade material, if another party breaches the agreement.

5. Will Congress reimpose those sanctions?

Instead of doing so immediately, Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, say they will propose a series of amendments to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. The idea is to add new conditions to the continued suspension of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Examples include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and limitations on uranium enrichment by Iran that go beyond the 15-year duration of certain provisions in the nuclear accord. However, Republicans have only a narrow majority in the Senate, and Democrats may not be willing to tamper with the nuclear accord, which the Barack Obama administration viewed as a significant achievement.

6. What’s the issue with Iran’s missile program?

Iran has been developing a homegrown missile program since it found itself unequipped to respond to missile attacks from Iraq in the 1980s war between the two. As Iran’s nuclear program advanced, concerns grew that the country would develop the technology for a nuclear-tipped missile. In 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution supporting the nuclear deal that called on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The U.S. says subsequent missile tests by Iran violated that resolution. Iran says they didn’t and that the missile program is essential for its defense.

7. What’s the issue with the deal’s duration?

In the agreement, Iran pledged that it would refine uranium to no more than 3.7 percent enrichment, the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants, and pledged to limit its enriched-uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms, 3 percent of its stores before the deal was reached. U.S. officials estimated that the agreement extended the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a bomb from a few months to a year. The trouble is, those terms last 15 years, or until 2030. At which point, in the absence of another arrangement, Iran would be free to return to refining uranium to a higher level, and to building greater stockpiles.

8. Does Iran sponsor terrorism?

Iran has been on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1984. Among the groups it supports that the U.S. considers terrorist are the Palestinian group Hamas, the Lebanese organization Hezbollah and one of the Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran considers these groups fighters in righteous causes.

9. How has Iran responded to U.S. pressure so far?

It’s put Iran in a bind. It sees U.S. actions, such as a broadening of non-nuclear sanctions in August, as an infringement of the agreement, and hard-liners in Iran have pushed for a strong Iranian response. Yet delivering one risks allowing the U.S. to blame Iran for any subsequent collapse of the accord. Iran insists it won’t fall into a “trap” set by the Trump administration by being the first to walk away. So it has sought a balanced reaction. For instance, parliament in August approved the outlines of a bill that would increase funding for the country’s missile program and the Revolutionary Guards, the premier security force. In announcing his new Iran policy, Trump said the U.S. was imposing new sanctions on the guards.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer of the Iran deal.
  • A guide to the Iran nuclear deal by the Belfer Center 
  • Federation of American Scientists overview of the effectiveness of applying sanctions on Iranian nuclear facilities.

— With assistance by Ladane Nasseri, and Golnar Motevalli

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