Iran nuclear deal remains in play as Trump's deadline for sanctions passes

Top US officials have expressed an interest in keeping the deal in place, and have told Trump that Iran is complying with it.

A man holds up a sign as he and several thousand other protestors demonstrate during a rally opposing the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man holds up a sign as he and several thousand other protestors demonstrate during a rally opposing the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, the 60-day deadline US President Donald Trump gave the US Congress to fix or scrap the Iran nuclear deal will pass – with no serious, formal action.
Does this mean that his decertification move failed, that he will scrap the deal on his own or that a new kind of dynamic has started regarding the Iran deal, which is still playing out? First, let’s explain Congress’s lack of action to date.
It was not for lack of a will to act – US Senator Bob Corker and some other partners had a bill ready to go to fix the deal.
Although Trump did not want to be bound by having to reapprove the nuclear deal every three months, his threat that, absent Congressional action, he might completely scrap the deal on his own was not to sell Congress.
The deal was already unpopular in Congress two-and-a-half years ago; now Congress has been working to reduce Iran’s capacity as a nuclear threat, at least in the short-term.
No Democrats want to scrap the deal – and about a dozen Republican senators don’t want to scrap it either.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who opposed the deal, has told The Jerusalem Post that for now it should be kept, with an eye to individually address its shortcomings. Former IDF military-intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wrote similarly in a Post op-ed last month.
Even current CIA Director Mike Pompeo – possibly Trump’s closest adviser – admitted two weeks ago that he told Trump that Iran is in short-term compliance with the deal.
Just as important – and related to Congressional non-action – Europe was unmoved, at least in the short-term, by Trump’s threat to scrap the deal.
If Europe is not on-board with re-sanctioning and re-negotiating the deal with Iran, most observers view any unilateral action by the US as having a limited impact.
There is essentially no real level of trade between the US and Iran to sanction away. And if the US tries to penalize its European partners for trading with Iran, they have threatened lawsuits in international courts – which they might very well win, since virtually no one says that Iran has formally broken the deal.
But there is another track.
The Post reported last month on a position paper by former defense minister Moshe Yaalon recommending that Trump formally leave the deal as is, but work with European allies to pressure Iran regarding issues not directly related to the deal, such as limiting its ballistic-missile testing and sponsorship of regional terror, and accepting an eventual extension of the deal’s nuclear restrictions.
Similarly, Former CIA Director Hayden told the Post in October that if Trump was not so stuck on the “nuclear now,” then “maybe Europe might be more serious about nuclear tomorrow.” Then the West could avoid “freeing up Iran about everything else” – its terror across the Middle East.
Again, like Yaalon and Yadlin, Hayden was suggesting negotiating with the Europeans and the UN to pressure and potentially sanction Iran for behaviors outside of the deal, most notably ballistic missile testing and regional terror, which bother everyone.
While Europe would oppose directly adding these elements into the deal, there have been signs that both France and England are upset by Iran’s missile testing and regional terror and might very well support pressure on Iran if it is viewed as separate from the deal.
This brings us back to the deadline. It is an artificial one.
So is another deadline in mid-January set by the State Department.
Many experts say that the key is not to pressure Iran by tomorrow or by next month, but rather to reunite the West and eventually the UN against Iran ballistic-missile testing and regional terror.
There are different opinions about when Iran could or should be pressured to extend the deal’s nuclear restrictions, but many feel this will be more possible once momentum is started on the other critical issues.
The strategy would have to be less direct – and it is unclear how such a strategy would allow enhancing International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of Iran’s military sites, which have been largely off-limits. It is also the kind of slow, painstaking diplomacy that Trump seems to loath.
But he may choose to go for it, pocketing his October-speech moment as freeing him from being perceived as approving the deal, and listening to the unified position of his advisers who oppose scrapping it entirely.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told the Post last month that she was willing to give Trump and the US more time on the issue. And Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, considered to be close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to Jared Kushner, last week mentioned six to nine months as a fair period in which to expect progress.
This would allow Trump to leave his loaded gun on the table – the threat to scrap the deal on his own – while giving diplomacy with US allies a longer chance to bear fruit.