The Trump administration has signed off on a new round of waivers of the sanctions against Iran that will keep the U.S. in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, a senior administration official confirmed, as the president determines what to do next.
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In the meantime, the Treasury Department is slapping 11 Iran-related individuals and companies with sanctions for cyber-attacks and proliferation.
Trump faced a deadline today when the U.S. must waive sanctions against Iran or let them snap back into place, violating the nuclear agreement and likely destroying it.
The senior administration official described this signing as a "holding action" while the White House completes its review of the nuclear deal and its broader Iran policy.
A vocal campaign, including top former Obama administration officials, has been calling on the president to stay in the deal.
The sanctions waivers are one of America's obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which offered Iran relief from crippling international sanctions in exchange for inspections of its nuclear facilities and limits on its nuclear capabilities. But the president's signature does not mean the U.S. is sticking in the agreement.
"This particular, narrow sanction waiver that's being renewed on an interim basis in no way countermands the President and the Secretary’s [Tillerson] judgment that the Iranian regime is in default of the JCPOA," the official said.
The new sanctions target 11 individuals and entities: one Iranian company and two Ukraine-based companies accused of assisting the IRGC’s ballistic missile program; and one Iranian firm and seven individuals accused of cyber-attacks on the U.S. financial system including banks and stock exchanges between 2012 and 2013.
Those seven individuals were previously charged by the Justice Department under President Obama.
It's the third time that the Trump administration has taken action to keep the deal alive and slapped on sanctions at the same time, trying to obscure that fact.
What's to come
While Trump is complying with the deal for now, all eyes are on another deadline -- Oct. 14 -- when the administration must certify to Congress that Iran is meeting its obligations under the agreement and that the deal remains in the interest of the U.S.
But that certification to Congress, required every 90 days under U.S. law and not as part of the Iran deal itself, is in jeopardy as Trump searches for a way out of the accord.
After the last certification to Congress in July, Trump told The Wall Street Journal, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago." He said he expected Iran to be declared noncompliant the next time, this October.
In a speech last week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley laid out how and why the administration might decertify the agreement, citing Iran’s other activities like support for terrorism. She said, however, that it was ultimately up to the president.
If the president decides by the Oct. 14 deadline to decertify the Iran deal, it would kick off a 60-day period in which Congress must decide whether to reinstate sanctions on Iran by a simple majority vote. But reinstating sanctions would violate the U.S.'s terms -- and effectively tear up the agreement.
Campaign to keep the Iran deal in place
While the White House finishes its Iran policy review, a vocal campaign against any possibility of decertifying the agreement is underway, led by Obama administration officials. President Obama himself is reportedly aware of the campaign, according to these officials.
More than 80 nuclear-nonproliferation experts signed a letter to the Trump administration Wednesday, urging him to stay in the Iran agreement, which they called "effective and verifiable ... [and] an important success ... the full implementation of which is critical to international peace and security."
Abandoning the deal, the experts warned, "would decrease the time it would take for Iran to obtain enough nuclear material for a warhead ... increase the likelihood of wider conflict in the Middle East and could trigger a destabilizing nuclear competition in region."
Two of the signatories -- Jon Finer, who was a senior adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Colin Kahl, an adviser to Obama -- went further, holding a media-briefing call Wednesday with Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator from the U.S. for the Iran deal when it was put in place under Obama.
Obama officals' argument
Sherman warned against decertification, saying it would rob the U.S. of any leverage against Iran, drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, undermine American credibility in other negotiations such as on North Korea and NAFTA, and empower hardliners in Iran.
While the administration is reportedly trying to work with European allies to rework the deal or extend it, Kahl said those allies are "categorically" opposed to reopening the deal, at least in part because they think it is working.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has certified eight times that Iran is complying with the agreement, as has the U.S. up to this point, although the Trump administration says Iran is violating the "spirit" of the deal.
Kahl conceded that Iran has "slipped across the line" by exceeding its limit on heavy water twice. But he said those violations don't constitute serious-enough breaches to jeopardize the deal and that Iran returned to compliance after being caught.
Critics of the Iran agreement such as Haley, , however, cite those violations as examples of Iran's noncompliance.
The three former Obama administration officials also said that the deal is almost impossible to renegotiate, unless the U.S. could give Iran some new concessions or incentives -- an idea Trump seems to oppose.
"You can't achieve 125 percent of this deal with 80 percent, or 90 percent even, of the leverage we had before, so you would have to bring other things to the table, not just pressure," Kahl said. "You can’t demand more concessions for the same [incentives]."
New sanctions won’t work either, the three said. First, they would be difficult to implement broadly, as the previous sanctions regime that brought Iran to negotiations were built on years of diplomacy with a limited objective, not an indefinite time frame.
Only under those circumstances could the U.S. get countries like China and Russia to abide by them and, now, any new sanctions would negatively affect their economies and they’d be unlikely to give up their new business.
"Sanctions never stopped Iran’s nuclear program," argued Sherman, adding that the number of Iranian centrifuges grew to 19,000 under the old sanctions regime despite its crippling effect on the Iranian economy.
The current crisis with North Korea has been discussed often in this context, that tearing up the Iran deal would harm U.S. credibility with North Korea as it tries to negotiate for Pyongyang to denuclearize.
"A lot of us find it ironic that you have an administration that seems hellbent on creating another nuclear crisis for no reason," said Kahl.
"If Trump kills Iran Deal with Iran complying he will create an international crisis while trying to mobilize same international partners against North Korea. Insane," tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy adviser.
The greatest danger, Sherman along with the authors of that letter warned, is that getting rid of the deal would eliminate any insight into Iran's nuclear activity because it allows for inspections and puts some constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
"If the deal fell apart," Sherman said. "Iran would be back on the march to getting the potential for getting a nuclear weapon and the IAEA would lose all visibility into the program."