Top Trump cabinet picks drop campaign to scrap Iran deal

Several critics of the agreement believe its worst elements are disproportionately loaded at the beginning of the deal, which has passed, and at the very end.

January 12, 2017 19:29
3 minute read.

An image of Iranian leaders is projected on a giant screen in front of demonstrators during a rally opposing the nuclear deal with Iran in Times Square, July 22, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Donald Trump's emerging national security team is settling on a consensus in favor of policing the Iran nuclear agreement brokered in 2015, as opposed to immediately scrapping it.

Trump's choices for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, secretary of defense, James Mattis, and Central Intelligence Agency director, Mike Pompeo, all testified this week of their plans to advise the incoming president to preserve the international accord, review it, strictly enforce it and worry over its sunset years, when several of its most critical restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will expire.

Their statements contrast with campaign rhetoric from both the president-elect and his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who during their run for the White House both vowed to "rip up" the deal negotiated alongside Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

"I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement. It's not a friendship treaty," said Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who opposed the deal when it first was revealed to the public after two years of negotiations. "But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."

Mattis said he would have to review details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action's enforcement and verification mechanisms once he is confirmed and has access to classified material. He would propose a joint congressional committee that would "oversee implementation," he said. But from what he has seen, Mattis believes the US has the ability to detect whether Iran violates the agreement.

To that end, the Trump administration must "examine our ability to clarify whether Iran is complying," Tillerson said on Wednesday, calling for a "full review" of the accord. But Tillerson focused on the out-years of the JCPOA– roughly eight to ten years from now, depending on the provision– as his primary point of concern.

"The real important question is what comes at the end of this agreement," Tillerson said.

And Pompeo said he would be "rigorously objective" in his approach to the agreement at the CIA, promising to provide "fair" intelligence on enforcement of the deal to members of Congress.

"While as a member of Congress I opposed the Iran deal, if confirmed, my role will change," Pompeo said, noting his leadership in fighting to kill the deal during congressional debate in 2015.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu– who vigorously fought against passage of the agreement through Congress– has not called on the Trump administration to scrap the deal. But he says that "how to deal with this bad deal" will be his top priority in his first meeting with the new president at the White House some time in the coming weeks.

Several critics of the agreement believe its worst elements are disproportionately loaded at the beginning of the deal, which has passed, and at the very end: That Iran has already received all of its nuclear-related sanctions relief, and that sunset provisions in the deal will legitimize the growth of its nuclear program to an industrial scale.

And so while critics remain steadfast in their opposition to the accord, they believe it is consistent with their criticisms to recognize some benefits to maintaining the deal: Keeping America's word to its allies and partners, surveying much of Iran's declared nuclear infrastructure and buying time to figure out how to manage its out-years.

David Makovsky, an expert on Israel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and head of its project on the Middle East peace process, said that their statements collectively amount to the "first clues" as to how a Trump administration will proceed with Iran.

"There might be differences amongst his advisers when it comes to Russia, but we're seeing a coalescing in the administration on the deal with Iran around vigorous enforcement," Makovsky said. "I think this is the best clue we've had so far that this administration is not going to rip up the deal with Iran."

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