By Sean Savage/JNS.org
In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, President Donald Trump made a forceful case against Iran’s behavior in the Middle East and the merits of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.
As a presidential candidate, Trump vowed to “rip up” the “disastrous” deal. Yet his administration has not taken any concrete steps to either renegotiate or pull the U.S. out. However, a key deadline looms in mid-October that has led to a flurry of speculation whether the Trump administration may make a major shift in strategy regarding the deal.
“The Iran deal is one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the U.S. has ever entered into to,” Trump declared to the international body filled with world leaders. “Frankly, that deal was an embarrassment to the U.S.”
The president took Iran to task for its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, saying that Tehran “speaks openly of mass murder, death to America and the destruction of Israel,” while also exporting “violence, bloodshed and chaos” throughout the region.
Drawing on Trump’s muscular speech, in his own address to the world body, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has derided the agreement for years, said the Islamic Republic could become the next North Korea if the nuclear deal isn’t “fixed or nixed.”
"There are those who still defend the dangerous [Iranian nuclear] deal, arguing that it will block Iran's path to the bomb. That's exactly what they said about the nuclear deal with North Korea, and we all know how that turned out. If nothing changes, this deal with turn out exactly the same way," Netanyahu warned.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org that Netanyahu “laid out the situation on Iran pretty well for his call to ‘fix it or nix it.’”
“There is a way to fix the Iran deal, and the way to do it is actually use the U.N. system and use Iran’s track record of bad behavior under the deal,” he said. “It’s the track record of being a maligned player in the region, which Trump and Netanyahu both referred to, to get this leverage with the Europeans to renegotiate it.”
Trump administration strategy
Last week, the Trump administration extended sanctions relief for Iran, but left open the possibility that it may not certify Iran’s compliance with the deal at the mid-October deadline.
However, administration officials, and even Trump on Twitter, has discussed the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal as an option. Under U.S. law, the president must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is in compliance with the deal. If the president does not certify their compliance, Congress could reimpose sanctions that were originally lifted, effectively ending the U.S.’s participation in the agreement.
Ben Taleblu said there has been a remarkable amount of consistency within the administration on not telegraphing its options on Iran.
“Despite all the talk about decertification and the October deadline, they have also done a good job at cultivating the ambiguity and uncertainty of what actually will happen,” he said.
Ben Taleblu believes the Trump administration should leverage the uncertainty over what will happen in October to get European allies on board with their future policy, while also preventing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani from driving a wedge between the U.S. and Europe on the nuclear deal.
“Europe is already eager to engage with Iran on the business front. The Trump administration needs to prevent Europe from being wooed by Iran and reject the charm offensive by Rouhani,” he said.
The Trump administration, according to Ben Taleblu, needs to “prevent the transatlantic community from being split, and working within the confines of international forums like the U.N., to develop a unified interpretation of the deal, with all its problems and pitfalls, and use that to vigorously enforce the deal and eventually set a predicate to renegotiate the deal.”
‘Sunset clauses’ in the Iran deal
In an interview following Trump’s speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Fox News that the so-called sunset clauses, which allow for key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to expire over time, were of particular concern.
"If we're going to stick with the Iran deal there has to be changes made to it. The sunset provisions simply is not a sensible way forward," Tillerson said. "It's just simply ... kicking the can down the road again for someone in the future to have to deal with."
Tillerson’s comments echoed that of Netanyahu’s, who slammed the sunset clauses in the nuclear deal in his U.N. speech.
Netanyahu told the world body that "when that sunset comes, a dark shadow will be cast over the entire Middle East and the world, because Iran will then be free to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, placing it on the threshold of a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons."
In his address, Trump did not mention the sunset clause, but suggested concern over it.
Despite forcefully urging the U.S. to stay in the Iran deal, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed some concern over aspects of the agreement in his U.N. speech.
"Let's be stricter, but let's not unravel agreements that have already brought security,” Macron told the U.N. Tuesday.
Notably, Macron pointed out a few flaws of the deal, including the sunset clauses, which “could be an opportunity for the Trump administration to build a bridge to Europe and develop a coherent policy around those issues,” Ben Taleblu said.
“Even though Europe has been against renegotiating the deal, some comments from European leaders, such as Macron, give me some cautious optimism for the Trump administration to go about creative ways in fixing the nuclear deal.”