For President Donald Trump, it’s déjà vu all over again on Iran.
Iran’s expected breach on Thursday of the uranium stockpile limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal is reviving a fierce debate within the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill about just how hard Trump should go to undermine the agreement.
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Even though Trump pulled out from the deal struck by President Barack Obama, an important portion of the agreement was left intact that allows work on Iran’s civil nuclear program and facilitates international projects to encourage its advancement.
The State Department has issued waivers to allow those projects to continue and doing away with them would almost certainly blow up the deal entirely. That’s precisely the goal that Trump administration hawks, led by national security adviser John Bolton, have been pursuing — thus far, with only limited success.
The next inflection point in the battle is likely to come Thursday, when Iran has said it will surpass the enrichment levels established by the deal. And Bolton and his allies on Capitol Hill are expected to ratchet up pressure on the State Department — and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — not to renew the waivers when they are next reviewed in August.
In recent days, senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, were briefed on a new essay by Michael Doran, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and former George W. Bush administration national security official, according to two people with knowledge of the briefing.
The essay argues for dropping the waivers, noting that for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, they “constitute the cornerstones of the JCPOA, the structure that provides international cover for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program,” according to two people briefed on the situation. The piece has also ping-ponged through offices at the National Security Council and the State Department, these people said. Bolton, among others, has read the piece, which has ping-ponged through offices at the National Security Council and the State Department, these people said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has publicly called for ending the nuclear waivers, tweeted the essay on Wednesday, calling it a “crucial analysis” and stating that it is “time to finally shred the deal.”
Proponents of the nuclear deal have argued that the international nuclear projects facilitated by the waivers help give the U.S. greater visibility and intelligence into Iranian activities; critics say they give an international stamp of approval to Iran’s illicit activities.
Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), both Bolton allies, said they have spoken to Trump privately about the matter, pressing him to intervene to ensure the waivers are not renewed again. The State Department previously pushed for continuing waivers related to Iranian oil sales, a “foolhardy” position, according to Cruz, who acknowledged the debate embroiling the White House.
“There continues to be a robust debate within the administration,” Cruz said in an interview, adding that he is calling for the administration to pursue strong “snapback” sanctions and remove the waivers as soon as Iran violates the agreement. “The natural next step is to decline to extend those waivers another time.”
“Why would we give them anything?” asked a second Republican senator of Iran. “They just called the president mentally retarded. They are almost as bad as the Democrats now.”
Trump departed for the G-20 meeting in Japan on Wednesday where American officials are expected to discuss next steps with their European allies. Trump on Monday signed an executive order imposing additional sanctions against Khamenei and other senior officials in retaliation for Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone.
The move led to a war of words between Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, with Trump tweeting that “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” Rouhani charged in a televised address that the White House’s actions were “mentally retarded.”
“The Iranian regime continues threatening to shorten its nuclear breakout timeline by increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and enriching uranium at higher levels — all of which is only possible because the terrible nuclear deal didn’t force Iran to permanently and irreversibly abandon its nuclear-related capabilities,” Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement. “The regime should stop its nuclear pursuit now and answer the president’s diplomacy with diplomacy, not terror.”
Iran’s expected breach on Thursday will also cast a spotlight on the remaining signatories of the deal, who will be responsible for enforcing its noncompliance. Those countries face a July 7 deadline imposed by Tehran to come up with a better deal — and get economic relief from U.S. sanctions — or Iran has said it will start enriching uranium not just above the levels allowed by the deal, but closer to the level required for a nuclear weapon.
“This will put pressure on the administration, but they can deflect that pressure onto the Europeans because they are signatories to an agreement that was violated,” said Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This actually could help the administration make its case — despite all the bells and whistles that John Kerry talked about — that this agreement is unenforceable if the Europeans refuse to respond to an explicit violation of the agreement.”
In early May, under pressure from America’s European allies, the State Department extended five of the seven waivers it had originally issued allowing work on civilian nuclear projects in Iran. But instead of granting the waivers for 180 days, as it had done previously, the administration said it would review the decision in 90 days.
Defenders of the waivers say the projects have incentivized Iran to abide by the terms of the deal, and that revoking them would almost certainly do the opposite.
“Let the focus be on Iran’s violation and not on Iran’s violation and a further U.S. provocation,” said Jarrett Blanc, who served as the State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation under Obama. But, he added, referring to senior Trump administration officials and their allies in Congress, “Bluntly speaking, I think that these guys are childish buffoons who tend to make the wrong decision whenever possible.”
Critics of the waivers have particularly homed in on the work being done at the Fordow and Arak plants, drawing attention to documents in the Israeli-exposed Iran nuclear archive indicating that the Fordow plant was built only to make nuclear weapons and never had a civilian dimension. Recent comments from Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Arakbar Salehi, indicating that Iran surreptitiously imported a second set of parts for its nuclear reactor at Arak have also elicited calls to suspend the waiver on projects at that plant.
“We should not be issuing waivers to allow Iran to continue nuclear research at the Fordow facility, a bunker built into the side of the mountain for the express purpose of building a nuclear bomb,” Cruz told POLITICO on Wednesday.
Many hawks think there’s no such thing as a civilian nuclear project anyway.
“I don’t believe them over there when they are talking about using them for nonmilitary use,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “Everything they do is for military use.”
Senators said that Trump is getting competing information about which to way to go on what could be one of his most explosive foreign policy decisions yet. Asked if his hard-line message is resonating, Rubio indicated it was.
“My sense of it is the administration is not in a waiver mood right now,” Rubio said.