US president Donald Trump has waived nuclear sanctions on Iran in time for a Friday deadline, reluctantly extending the life of a teetering nuclear deal he has repeatedly called to scrap.
But his administration announced new non-nuclear sanctions and issued a stern warning to allies that his patience is running out over the 2015 accord — in which Iran limited its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief — he has called “the worst deal ever”.
“He intends to work with European partners on some kind of follow-on agreement that enshrines certain triggers,” said a senior administration official on Friday. This new arrangement would be separate from the accord itself and would include provisions to reimpose nuclear sanctions should Iran come within a year of “nuclear breakout”.
Mr Trump, who has threatened to pull America out of the agreement, is frustrated lawmakers have failed to fix the deal since he first refused to “certify” it to Congress in October, according to people familiar with the matter.
But it is not clear how far Europeans will support the new effort. His constant attacks have enfeebled the deal, enraged US allies and undermined his own efforts to hold Tehran to account, say critics.
Mr Trump’s refusal in October to endorse the agreement to Congress gave lawmakers 60 days to introduce new legislation under expedited procedures, a window they did not take up. Mr Trump is frustrated by regular deadlines, not only to endorse the deal every 90 days but also to pass deal-related sanctions waivers that fall due every 120 and 180 days, and is tiring of giving extensions, say people familiar with discussions.
“There are warnings and threats to Congress and Europeans that if there’s not something from Congress by 120 days from now he's not going to do this again,” said a person familiar with discussions.
European allies have flooded the White House and Congress with appeals to save the deal, floating ways to address Mr Trump’s concerns outside the parameters of the deal itself, and reminders the US cannot single-handedly change the multi-party accord.
“The real dirty secret is that the president could get out of this at any time,” warned another knowledgeable person. “There’s just one person who’s the wild card there.”
General McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has sought to craft a deal with lawmakers that might, among other aims, relieve Mr Trump of the need for regular certification. But discussions are at an early stage.
Ben Cardin, minority leader for the Senate foreign relations committee whose co-operation would be essential to legislative action, met with his counterpart Bob Corker and Gen McMaster last week, but remains attached to two red lines: he will not support any effort that irks European allies or puts the US in violation of the deal.
A congressional aide familiar with discussions said there are “no guarantees whatsoever” that a legislative fix can be found that would satisfy Mr Trump and that the process has yet to develop into negotiations over a text.
Another senior administration official said changes the president wants from Congress include amending domestic legislation so Iran’s ballistic missile programme is subject to the same safeguards as its nuclear development.
Jarrett Blanc, former state department co-ordinator for Iran nuclear implementation during the Obama administration, said Mr Trump’s hawkish focus on the deal has backfired.
“What they've done since October has been a failure in its own terms,” he said. Constant uncertainty over the deal has hampered administration hopes to pressure Iran on other areas, such as its non-nuclear ballistic missile programme, support for Hizbollah militants and human rights record.
New sanctions announced by the Treasury on Friday will target Iranian entities and individuals, including the head of the judiciary, a move a senior administration official said will have “serious political impact”. The US has also lent support this year to anti-regime protesters, boosting their access to the internet and pressuring Tehran to remove censorship since demonstrations began late last year.
But Simon Gass, lead UK negotiator for the deal and former ambassador to Iran, said the Trump administration’s approach took the focus away from Tehran’s actions and enabled the Iranian government to blame external forces.
“To try to insert yourself into the middle by too overt and too activist an approach really plays into the hand of hardliners,” he said.
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