— -- The Trump administration is reviewing the Obama-era nuclear weapons agreement with Iran to determine whether they will stop the deal's suspension of U.S. sanctions, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today.
Tillerson said administration officials would review the deal despite also announcing that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 agreement reached under President Obama.
“Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Tillerson wrote in a Tuesday night letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The terms of the nuclear agreement require the State Department to update Congress on Iran’s compliance every 90 days. Tillerson’s letter noted that Iran is meeting the deal’s requirements.
Tillerson wrote that Trump has directed an inter-agency review of the Iran deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to “evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran ... is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
What’s the Iran deal again?
In 2015, the United States and five other nations -- the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany -- lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran drastically limiting its nuclear activities.
Around $100 million worth of Iranian oil money and other assets were frozen prior to the agreement. In order to unfreeze that money, Iran agreed to several terms, including:
- Dropping nearly 75 percent of its uranium centrifuges -- equipment used to produce nuclear fuel for power plants or weapons.
- Reducing its uranium stockpile by 98 percent for 15 years and keeping its level of uranium enrichment low enough to only fuel nuclear power plants, not weapons.
- Redesigning its existing heavy-water reactor so it can’t make weapons-grade plutonium and pledging not to build more reactors for 15 years.
- Complying with regular monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the international watchdog for nuclear power.
- Allowing IAEA inspectors access to any site within 24 days of an inspection request.
These sanctions don’t eliminate Iran’s access to nuclear energy, but it does significantly reduce the country’s “breakout time” -- the time needed to build a nuclear weapon. According to the Brookings Institution, the deal increased Iran’s breakout time to at least one year.
What does the Trump administration think about it?
Trump has been a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal for years, calling it a “disaster” throughout his presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016.
Since he has come into office, he has continued to blast the deal.
In July last year, Trump told CNN that the Iranians “are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear. We should double up and triple up the sanctions and have them come to us. They are making an amazing deal."
Trump’s Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, has also criticized the deal and Iran’s actions in the Middle East. At a press conference this morning, speaking on Iran’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Mattis said “everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region you find Iran.”
What comes next?
At today’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump may believe that Iran is cheating on the deal.
“That's why he's asking for this review,” Spicer said. “If he didn't, if he thought everything was fine, he would have allowed this to move forward. I think he's doing the prudent thing by asking for a review of the current deal and what's happening.”
Spicer said the administration will be conducting the review over the next 90 days, and will have more to report at the end of that period.
At a press conference this afternoon, Tillerson suggested that the current nuclear agreement "fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran and only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state."
"An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it," Tillerson said. He went on to say that the Iran deal "is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions, we buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later. We just don't see that that's a credible way to be dealing with Iran."
Earlier this week, a senior White House official told Foreign Policy that the Trump administration is considering taking a harder stance on the deal -- implementing the agreements in an “incredibly strict” way -- or expanding sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is an Iranian military branch intended to protect the country's Islamic system.
There is some speculation that the Trump administration may expand sanctions in response to Iran’s ballistic missile testing and it’s funding for terrorist acts. The administration already implemented new sanctions on Iran in early February for testing a missile.
Additional sanctions wouldn’t necessarily violate the terms of the Iran deal, but it is possible that they could push Iran to drop out of the agreement and begin to develop nuclear weapons.
Spicer said sanctions have been “an effective tool,” but added that the administration recognized the possible consequences of increasing sanctions.
“Obviously we're well aware of any potential negative impacts that an action could have,” Spicer said. “So regardless of whether it's an economic, political or military action, you always weigh all those kind of options.”