President Donald Trump plans to announce next week that he will "decertify" the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to Congress, people briefed on an emerging White House strategy for Iran said Thursday.
The move would mark the first step in a process that could result in the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran, scuttling a deal limiting Iran's nuclear activities that the country reached in 2015 with the U.S. and five other nations.
Trump plans to deliver a speech, tentatively scheduled for Thursday, in which he will lay out a larger strategy for confronting the nation he blames for terrorism and instability throughout the Middle East, according to four people familiar with aspects of the emerging White House Iran strategy.
Under what the people described as a tougher and more comprehensive approach, Trump would open the door to modifying the 2015 agreement he has repeatedly bashed as a raw deal for the United States. For now, however, he would hold off on recommending that Congress reimpose sanctions on Iran that would abrogate the agreement, the people said.
All cautioned that the plans are not fully set and could change. The White House would not confirm plans for a speech or its contents.
In the coming week, Trump must report to Congress on whether Iran is complying with the agreement and whether he judges the deal to be in the U.S. national interest. A U.S. law requires the president to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance -- which Trump has done twice thus far, the last time after a contentious White House debate. Trump's next report has a deadline of Oct. 15.
"The administration looks forward to sharing details of our Iran strategy at the appropriate time," said Michael Anton, spokesman for the White House national security council.
The anonymous sources familiar with the nine-month review of U.S. military, diplomatic, economic and intelligence approaches toward Iran asked not to be named because aspects of the policy are not yet set and Trump has not announced his decision.
Trump's senior national security advisers agreed within the past several weeks to recommend that Trump "decertify" the agreement at the deadline, two of the people said.
That would start a 60-day congressional review period to consider the next steps for the United States. On its own, the step would not break the agreement among Iran, the United States and other world powers, but it would start a clock on resuming sanctions that the United States had lifted as its part of the deal.
The administration has begun discussing possible legislation to "strengthen" the agreement, congressional aides and others said. That is the "fix it or nix it" approach suggested by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a leading Republican hawk on Iran.
Cotton met Thursday with Trump, according to his spokesman, Caroline Rabbitt Tabler.
Asked about the meeting, White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "The president routinely meets with senators and House members and this wasn't anything beyond that. They talked about a number of issues. Obviously, Sen. Cotton has been somebody the president has worked with regularly since taking office. We're going to continue to do that."
Asked whether immigration and Iran had come up during the conversation, Sanders said, "I think both of those topics were discussed."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last month that he will not reopen the nuclear deal for negotiation.
Separately, representatives of Iran, China and Russia told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the same thing during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session, two senior diplomats familiar with that meeting said.
INSPECTORS IN SPOTLIGHT
Trump's attacks on the nuclear deal with Iran have focused attention on a 60-year-old nuclear oversight agency, staffed largely by scientists, engineers and data analysts, that has adamantly defended its neutrality while working in some of the most volatile environments in the world.
In an interview, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, defended the agency and what he has called the "world's most robust" nuclear inspections effort.
"We have the strongest verification regime in Iran," Amano said in his office in Vienna overlooking the Danube River. "We have experienced, well-trained inspectors and we are doing our job impartially, objectively and factually."
But some Trump administration officials and outside experts argue that the organization -- the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency -- is not inspecting Iranian facilities aggressively enough.
And they say that the 2015 agreement, under which Iran accepted limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from crippling sanctions, has not reined in its provocative behavior elsewhere -- including testing ballistic missiles, imprisoning Americans and arming Shiite Muslim rebels in Yemen.
In August, Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, visited the agency's headquarters in Vienna and urged the agency to inspect Iranian military bases that are not among the 18 declared nuclear sites to which monitors have regular access under the agreement. Although Haley said she was "impressed" with the agency, many read her comments as a critique of the agency's cautious approach under Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat.
Seven times, the agency has reported that Iran is meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal, which caps its stockpiles of enriched uranium and other materials in order to extend the time the country would need to manufacture a nuclear bomb.
Current and former agency officials describe an inspections procedure that is far more intrusive than what existed before Iran and the so-called P5+1 -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany -- began implementing the agreement in January 2016.
"It provides for the strictest IAEA verification and monitoring to date anywhere," said Tariq Rauf, who led the agency's verification and security policy coordination office until 2011.
If Trump reports to Congress that Iran is in violation of the deal, Congress could decide to reimpose sanctions, which would irk Iran and open a rift with allies who argue that the hard-won deal has shed light on a nuclear program that Tehran long tried to hide from the world.
By decertifying Iran's compliance, Trump also would be ignoring the advice of senior aides including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said this week that maintaining the deal was in the United States' national security interest.
"We have more confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's current activities than we did a few years ago," said one Western official in Vienna who requested anonymity under diplomatic protocol. "How much more it is hard to say. But the level of access and the sorts of things the agency is able to measure now give you increased confidence."
Information for this article was contributed by Anne Gearan of The Washington Post; by Shashank Bengali of the Los Angeles Times; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 10/06/2017
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