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Trump Vows to End Iran Deal Himself if Congress Won’t Act



President Donald Trump took aim Friday at the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, vowing to end U.S. participation in the landmark deal unless Congress and U.S. allies are able to deliver on punitive measures targeting Tehran’s missile program, its support for regional militant groups, and any future nuclear activities.

As a first step, Mr. Trump refused to certify to Congress under a U.S. law that Iran was complying with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, charging that the country had violated the terms of the deal. Going further, Mr. Trump said if efforts to address his concerns fall short, he would terminate the accord.

“It is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time,” he said.

As U.S. president, Mr. Trump has wide, long-term latitude over the fate of the agreement, but lacks the ability under the accord’s complicated terms to immediately abolish it.

Mr. Trump, reiterating his fierce opposition to the terms of the deal, announced his decision after issuing a lengthy denunciation of what he called a “rogue regime” run by radicals.

“Iran is under the control of a fanatical regime,” Mr. Trump said in a speech at the White House, adding it has “spread death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.”

Detailing grievances against Iran going back to 1979, the year of the country’s Islamic revolution, Mr. Trump broadly condemned the country’s rulers.

“Iranian aggression continues to this day,” he said. “The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

In his threat, the president applied a well-practiced tactic of pressing for changes in pre-existing arrangements and abandoning them if he doesn’t succeed. He has taken a similar approach to the Paris climate accord and the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as to domestic programs such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Mr. Trump’s move on Friday touches off high-pressure negotiations in Washington and European capitals over the future of the accord, and his action drew intensive world-wide attention. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani denounced Mr. Trump’s comments in a televised speech, saying: “The Iranian people will not bend down before a dictator.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Mr. Trump’s move to deny Iran’s compliance with the deal courageous, saying the U.S. leader had “boldly confronted Iran’s terrorist regime.” ​

Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni Muslim power and Shiite-majority Iran’s main rival in the Middle East, also threw its support behind Mr. Trump’s stance.

European officials pushed back, however, on his threat to scuttle the deal if his terms can’t be satisfied.

“It is not a bilateral agreement. It does not belong to any single country and it is not up to any single country to terminate,” the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini told reporters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose countries are parties to the accord, said in a joint statement they remained committed to the agreement “and its full implementation by all sides.”

China, another party to the deal, has also signaled its desire to keep it intact, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying Tuesday it was in the interest of all sides to continue its implementation.

A law passed in 2015 to give Congress oversight of the nuclear deal requires the president to tell Congress every 90 days whether Iran is complying. If the president doesn’t do so, it triggers a 60-day process for lawmakers to weigh whether to reimpose sanctions under expedited consideration.

However, Mr. Trump didn’t call on Congress to reimpose sanctions immediately, and instead said he supported efforts of Republicans in Congress to craft legislation that would amend the 2015 U.S. oversight bill to reimpose sanctions on Iran if it violates enhanced and existing restrictions on its nuclear program.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been working with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on amending the oversight law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, known in Washington as INARA. Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) have also been involved in crafting the amended legislation.

Mr. Corker, despite a public feud with Mr. Trump that has spilled into Twitter posts, said on Friday that he expects to introduce the legislation in the next week or two.

Mr. Trump highlighted concerns with “sunset clauses” in the nuclear deal that allow nuclear restrictions to expire. Mr. Tillerson, briefing reporters, said the U.S. envisions a “successor deal” to address those concerns.

A current draft of the bill also would change the frequency of presidential certification required from every quarter to twice a year.

The legislative process is likely to require time and painstaking negotiations. Mr. Tillerson said he hoped Congress would amend the legislation before Mr. Trump next faces another certification deadline in January, but admitted the process won’t be a “slam dunk.”

Mr. Rubio said he backed Mr. Trump’s move to withhold support for the deal and said he thought the U.S. should leave the accord and reimpose sanctions. “I have serious doubts about whether it is even possible to fix such a dangerously flawed agreement,” he said.

However, Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s “reckless political decision and his subsequent threat to Congress.” Mr. Cardin voted against the deal in 2015 but said Friday he backed staying in it and rigorously enforcing it.

Mr. Corker’s measure would contain what Mr. Tillerson called “trigger points” that would reimpose sanctions, for example, if Iran violates restrictions spelled out in the legislation. The legislation would set stricter limits than those contained in the nuclear accord. Mr. Corker’s office said the bill would be “effectively ridding the JCPOA of its sunset provisions as they apply to U.S. sanctions.” It will also bolster the verification powers of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog and limiting Iran’s centrifuge program.

As it works to toughen the U.S. law, the administration also will seek talks with European partners to address key concerns, Mr. Tillerson said.

Asked if the EU would be interested in negotiating a “successor” agreement, Ms. Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, said “the agreement is working, has been implemented, continues to be implemented…I would expect all sides to stick to it.”

European officials and former U.S. officials involved in negotiating the deal are concerned that by reimposing sanctions for reasons not covered by the original nuclear deal, the U.S. stands to be in breach of the international agreement, setting in motion a sequence of events that could lead to the deal’s collapse.

Mr. Trump has the power to unilaterally end U.S. participation in the deal by halting the U.S. sanctions relief that Iran was promised under the accord. Doing so, however, wouldn’t necessarily abolish the agreement, as other countries and Iran could choose to continue to follow it.

Reinstating U.S. sanctions also could lead Iran to halt its commitments under the deal if Tehran doesn’t receive the economic relief it expected. Iran’s withdrawal and return to now-banned nuclear activities would effectively nullify the agreement.

Mr. Trump has other options under the complex deal. He could say that Iran has committed a material breach of the terms and initiate a dispute resolution process ​that could lead to a vote in the U.N. Security Council. In such a vote, the U.S.’s veto could result in the resumption of broad, punitive international sanctions. However, the appearances of a U.S. move to force a vote that way would be challenging, former officials involved in the negotiations said.

Among other steps outlined by Mr. Trump, the U.S. will target the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military branch, which Mr. Trump said has hijacked large portions of Iran’s economy.

The IRGC won’t be classified formally as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. laws that would expose it to more punitive action, officials said. Instead, the Treasury Department announced on Friday that it is designating the group under as a terror ​organization under an executive order that was created after Sept. 11, 2001 to target terrorist financing.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that even though large parts of the IRGC has already been sanctioned under past executive orders, the latest designation could inflict economic damage.

“This is a major course correction” by Washington, Mr. Ben Taleblu said. Besides expanding the sanctions to the entire IRGC, the administration is also issuing the order under a terrorism designation, which ratchets up the stigma for firms and individuals thinking about doing business with the group or any of its affiliates.

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