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Trump stays in Iran nuclear deal for now, targets rights abusers

US President Donald Trump once again waived Iran nuclear sanctions to stay in the deal, but he warned it will be for the last time if he does not get a legislative fix that meets his demands.
U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Interior Secretary†Ryan Zinke and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC113BF0A9B0

WASHINGTON — The White House announced today that President Donald Trump would waive nuclear-related sanctions in order to remain compliant with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Trump warned it was for the last time if Congress does not provide him with a legislative fix that meets his demands.

“Despite my strong inclination, I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said in a written statement today. “I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws or the United States will withdraw.”

With an eye to recent Iran protests that erupted in Mashhad in late December and quickly spread nationwide before subsiding in recent days, the US Treasury Department also announced the designation of 14 Iranian entities and individuals mostly accused of committing human rights abuses, most prominently Iran’s judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani. The United States also designated the director of Iran’s Rajaee Shahr prison, where it said many Iran protesters had been held and denied medical treatment, as well as the electronic warfare unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which it accused of restricting Iranians’ ability to access information and freedom of expression.

Trump said he was demanding that Congress amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). He wants US legislation for unilateral “fixes” to the nuclear deal that go beyond the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was negotiated over years by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China as well as Iran.

“I am open to working with Congress on bipartisan legislation on Iran,” Trump said in the statement. “But any bill I sign must include four critical components. First, it must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors. Second, it must ensure that Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon."

Trump's statement continued, “Third, unlike the nuclear deal, these provisions must have no expiration date. If Iran does not comply with any of these provisions, American nuclear sanctions would automatically resume. Fourth, the legislation must explicitly state in United States law — for the first time — that long-range missile and nuclear weapons programs are inseparable, and that Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions.”

In recent weeks, Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), co-sponsors of INARA and the chair and ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, respectively, have been discussing with the White House possible amendments to INARA that would, among other things, reduce how frequently Trump has to certify the nuclear deal, which is currently every 90 days.

But Cardin has repeatedly said he won’t sign onto any legislation that would violate the JCPOA or would risk US-European solidarity on Iran, which some of Trump’s stated demands would do.

“I remain open to discussing legislative options that would not violate the JCPOA and that have the support of our European partners," Cardin said in a statement after Trump's Iran announcement today.

“Instead of leading an international negotiation on the agreement himself, however, the president’s statement making threats and dictating final terms of potential negotiations with Congress and Europe makes it more challenging to achieve this objective.”

European allies, who have strongly urged the Trump administration to stay in the deal while offering to work to address shared concerns with Iran’s missile program, also reacted cautiously to Trump’s announcement.

“We have noted the White House statement,” a British Embassy spokesman told Al-Monitor. “We will be discussing this with our European partners and with the United States, and [we] will respond in detail in due course.”

Proponents of the landmark Iran nuclear accord said the deal had gotten another reprieve, but warned that the constant uncertainty Trump had put over the deal since he came into office last year has inhibited international investment in Iran and some of the economic benefits Iranians had expected in return for the restrictions it undertook on its nuclear program.

“It certainly could have been worse,” Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor today. “But this is not more than a temporary reprieve.”

“The deal's other signatories should not assume that it can easily withstand further blows,” Vaez said. “Trump’s threat to pull the plug on the JCPOA is a sword of Damocles intended to spur Congress to action, Europeans to compromise and Iran to lose its nerve.”

“It is finally time for the other P5+1 members to factor Washington out of their JCPOA calculations, while continuing to encourage it to remain in the deal,” Vaez said.

Some Republican foreign policy experts said Trump had struck the right balance by staying in the nuclear deal, at least for now, and keeping the focus on the Iranian protesters’ grievances with their own government.

If Trump had used this moment to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions, “you’d risk changing the subject,” Michael Singh, a former Bush administration National Security Council Middle East senior director, said on a call hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“At a time when the regime is facing internal pressure, at a time when people are out on the streets in Iran, why divert attention to the United States?” Singh asked. “Why make the story our action or lack of action, rather than what is happening inside Iran itself.”

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