Updated Nov. 20, 2016 10:03 p.m. ET
The Obama administration is considering new measures in its final months in office to strengthen the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, senior U.S. officials said, with President-elect Donald Trump’s first appointments foreshadowing an increasingly rocky road for the controversial deal.
Donald Trump’s first appointments foreshadowing an increasingly rocky road for the controversial deal.
Action under consideration to buttress the pact includes steps to provide licenses for more American businesses to enter the Iranian market and the lifting of additional U.S. sanctions.
The effort to shore up the agreement was under way before the election and is not aimed at boxing in Mr. Trump, who opposes the deal, the officials said. Officials also acknowledged the proposals are unlikely to make the nuclear agreement more difficult to undo.
Mr. Trump’s first two picks for his national security team—retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn as national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) as Central Intelligence Agency director—are hard-liners on Iran who have voiced opposition to the nuclear deal.
Trump transition team officials didn’t respond to questions about their plans for the agreement or the current administration’s efforts to shore it up.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump talked at times of ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, but also said U.S. companies shouldn’t be at a disadvantage in entering the Iranian market. “All of these countries are going to do business with Iran,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign event in September 2015. “They’re going to make lots of money and lots of other things with Iran…And we’re going to get nothing.”
Within the Obama administration, officials say they recognize that there is little they can do from a policy perspective if the incoming administration is determined to scuttle the accord. But they plan to make a forceful case to the president-elect’s team of the grim consequences they believe the U.S. would face if it ended up being blamed for the agreement’s failure.
Under the deal, reached in July 2015, Tehran agreed to scale back its nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of most international sanctions.
“Our bet is when they look at this and analyze what the implications would be for tearing up the deal, they won’t do it,” a senior administration official said. “But as for what they’ll actually do? Who knows?”
Another senior U.S. official argued “it’s very hard to tear up the deal” because U.S. allies and partners, including Russia and China, are committed to it. But, the official said, the “most important thing we can do is show that it’s working.”
Administration officials said they haven’t yet begun conversations on the Iran deal with the officials Mr. Trump has deployed across the government to facilitate his transition into office. They also are unsure whether those Trump officials are the ones they need to persuade.
The picture they plan to articulate for Mr. Trump’s team is stark: If the agreement falls apart, and the U.S. is blamed for its collapse, Iran would resume its nuclear program more aggressively. In that case, the U.S. risks alienating Europe, as well as China and Russia, and limiting its ability to use sanctions again to contain Iran. Military action against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, these officials argue, could be the only alternative.
Administration officials do not believe Mr. Trump would overtly pull out of the deal. Their concern is more that it would fall apart due to attempts by the incoming administration to renegotiate pieces of it, expanding sanctions against Iran unrelated to its nuclear program, or neglect.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, said the Iran deal is “uniquely vulnerable” and requires constant attention because it is not a treaty and has faced significant opposition in the U.S. and Iran.
Aaron David Miller
“Over time, without that kind of willful and purposeful effort, it’s hard to maintain,” Mr. Miller said. “It needs to be constantly attended to, defended and rationalized. Does this new administration have that kind of will? That’s an open question.”
Mr. Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Mr. Pompeo, was among the most aggressive U.S. lawmakers in trying to overturn the nuclear agreement. He has said the terms of the deal don’t do enough to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and that the U.S. is essentially subsidizing Tehran’s military operations in Syria and Iraq by unfreezing billions of dollars of its oil revenues. He has proposed legislation for new sanctions on Iran and measures to limit the White House’s ability to implement the deal.
“I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Pompeo wrote in a tweet last week, shortly before his nomination for the CIA post.
Gen. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has described Iran in writings and interviews as the world’s primary source of international terrorism. And he’s accused the Obama administration of suppressing intelligence linking the Iranian government to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The White House has denied this charge.
In his 2016 book, “The Field of Fight,” the retired general described correspondence between the al Qaeda leader and Iran found in his compound following his death in 2011. “One letter to bin Laden reveals that al Qaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons in Iran,” he wrote.
Messrs. Flynn and Pompeo also have called for a much more aggressive U.S. drive to confront Tehran in the region and to cut off its support for Middle East militant groups.
Iranian officials have publicly accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to promote investment in Iran as part of the nuclear deal.
In response, Secretary of State John Kerry has met with European bankers to encourage them to go back into the Iranian market. The Treasury also issued new investment guidelines for Iran that were seen as easing Iran’s ability to gain access to U.S. dollars.
“The deal is under a lot of stress moving forward,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury Department official who worked on the Iran deal who is now at the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning think tank. “The greatest danger comes from the United States.”
She said perhaps Mr. Obama’s strongest check against the deal’s opponents is Congress, where many lawmakers are wary of overturning it outright.
Yet many lawmakers also want to ramp up sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and support for terrorism. The White House has threatened to veto one of the bills in Congress. It is unclear that Mr. Trump would do the same and has voiced conflicting statements on the utility of new sanctions.
“We’re all reading the tea leaves here,” the senior administration official said, adding that the perception among Administration officials of Mr. Trump is “he’s not a warmonger.”
Even if the incoming administration doesn’t technically or legally undo the deal, there is the risk that Iran will view new sanctions, or even tougher rhetoric, as a reason to back out on its own.
Mr. Miller said any major move by the Obama administration to try to keep Mr. Trump from implementing his own policy on the Iran deal would be akin to waving “a red flag” in front of the next administration and could fuel tensions between Messrs. Obama and Trump.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading opponent of the Iran deal, said any unilateral action on the part of the Obama administration would only raise the political pressure on the Trump administration to move quickly to reverse the accord.
“The perception that Obama jammed Congress and the American people with a unilateral Iran nuclear deal is what has undermined the deal’s legitimacy in the first place,” Mr. Dubowitz said.
The Obama administration has praised Tehran for abiding by the nuclear agreement. And Mr. Kerry has maintained a belief that Iran could emerge as a partner for the U.S. in stabilizing the Mideast.
Still, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, raised concerns this month about Iran’s commitment to abiding by the nuclear accord.
The IAEA announced that Iran had twice breached its commitment to keep its production of heavy water, a key material for nuclear weapons development, under a cap of 130 metric tons.
The first time, the Obama administration stepped in to purchase the excess heavy water from Iran. The IAEA said Iran was now seeking another international buyer to help it remain in compliance.
Mr. Pompeo and other Republican leaders have stressed that the U.S. under a President Trump will no longer aid Iran, but will, instead, vigorously enforce the terms of the deal.
“Many Members of Congress continue to believe the U.S. should not bear the burden of Iran’s ongoing failure to meet its…obligation,” Mr. Pompeo wrote Mr. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a letter dated Nov. 14 but not yet sent.
Corrections & Amplifications:
“Many Members of Congress continue to believe the U.S. should not bear the burden of Iran’s ongoing failure to meet its…obligation,” Rep. Mike Pompeo, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, wrote Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a letter dated Nov. 14 but not yet sent. An earlier version of this article didn’t make clear that Mr. Pompeo’s office was yet to send that correspondence (Nov. 20, 2016).
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