Trump's Ultimatum to Toughen Nuclear Deal Tests European Allies

Updated on
  • He gives them 120 days to agree to a list of new restrictions
  • Demands go beyond the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers

Donald Trump.

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg

President Donald Trump has handed European allies an ultimatum to revamp the nuclear deal with Iran, something they have no intention of doing, posing a potential new conflict with other world leaders.

“This is a last chance,” Trump vowed Friday in a statement announcing that he’d waived economic sanctions tied to the 2015 accord a final time. “No one should doubt my word.”

Trump warned that he would scrap the agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program -- an accord he has long despised -- unless European countries “join with the United States in fixing significant flaws in the deal.” He effectively gave them a deadline of 120 days, the next time he’d have to decide under American law on whether to waive sanctions.

While most European leaders were silent Saturday, those who reacted were unhappy with Trump’s approach. “Operating under an ultimatum leads to nothing,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselbourn told Welt am Sonntag in Germany. “Abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran will not lead to more stability but rather would endanger world peace.”

Mistake, Miscalculation

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Trump is signalling that the decision to withdraw from the multilateral accord “is already made or is about to be made,” which he called one of the U.S.’s “largest foreign-policy mistakes, one of the largest miscalculations of American politics.” according to Interfax.

Many European leaders have made clear for months that they agree with international inspectors that Iran is abiding by limits on its nuclear program set out in the deal it made with the U.S. under former President Barack Obama and five other world powers.

Among Trump’s demands are the elimination of sunset provisions in the agreement that will phase out many restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in coming years, and spelling out that Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs should be considered “inseparable.” The nuclear accord doesn’t directly bar missile testing.

“In a nutshell, what’s he’s saying is ‘Kill the deal with me or I’ll kill it alone,’” said Rob Malley, vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group who was Obama’s Middle East adviser. “My impression talking to Europeans is, yes, they want to salvage the deal,” but imposing new requirements on Iran may give it reason to walk away.

“Trump’s policy & today’s announcement amount to desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet on Friday. “Rather than repeating tired rhetoric, U.S. must bring itself into full compliance-- just like Iran.”

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The president once again waived economic sanctions that were explicitly tied to Iran’s nuclear program and were eased under the accord. American laws governing those sanctions require the waivers to be renewed every several months.

The Treasury Department also issued new sanctions against 14 people and entities involved with the country’s ballistic missile programs and the government’s recent crackdown on protesters.

‘Worst’ Deal

As a presidential candidate, Trump threatened to shred what he’s called “the worst deal ever.” The last time the agreement came up for review, in October, aides had to talk him out of abandoning it completely.

Instead, Trump said then that he would give lawmakers a chance to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the 2015 bill that was passed as a way to impose a degree of congressional oversight over the agreement.

A key element of Trump’s plan is that sanctions will be reimposed -- or “snap back” -- automatically if Congress finds Iran to be violating the terms of the accord. In effect, Trump’s proposal calls for American lawmakers to take over judgments on Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“I’ve been warning about this for a year -- that Trump is serious about walking away from the deal, and people like me who want to fix the deal and not collapse it have to get our act together and get it fixed because there are fatal flaws,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has advocated for Iran sanctions and helped Congress write them.

Still, Trump left some room to maneuver in his statement. He didn’t say exactly what European allies must do beyond addressing the deal’s flaws, countering Tehran’s aggression and “supporting the Iranian people.” Whether that must come in binding action isn’t clear.

Discreet Talks

The U.S. has been holding frequent, discreet talks with European leaders about what’s next regarding the accord, which Iran reached with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.

The allies initially held back from condemning Trump’s ultimatum.

“We have noted the White House statement,” said a spokesman for the British embassy in Washington. “We will be discussing this with our European partners and with the United States and will respond in detail in due course.”

Lawmakers in Washington have divisions about how to proceed.

“I’m all in favor of trying to address the agreement’s weaknesses,” Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said in a statement. “But the way to do so is to engage with international partners and build momentum to negotiate new provisions. The wrong approach is to bully countries with arbitrary and unenforceable deadlines.”

— With assistance by Kambiz Foroohar, Toluse Olorunnipa, Naomi Kresge, and Anna Andrianova

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