President Donald Trump on Friday announced the major shift in US policy in a speech in which he detailed a more aggressive approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for extremist groups in the Middle East.
Trump angrily accused Iran of violating the spirit of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, blaming it for a litany of malign behavior and hitting its main military wing with anti-terrorism sanctions.
He accused Iran of “not living up to the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and said his goal is to ensure Tehran never obtains a nuclear weapon.
“We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Trump said.
But Trump, breaking with a campaign pledge to rip up the agreement, said he was not yet ready to pull the US out or re-impose nuclear sanctions.
US Congress told: Fix deficiencies
Instead, he kicked the issue to Congress and the other nations in the seven-country accord, telling lawmakers to toughen the law that governs US participation and to fix a series of deficiencies in the agreement. Those include the expiration of several key restrictions under “sunset provisions” that begin to kick in in 2025, he said.
If Congress reimposes the sanctions, the United States would in effect be in violation of the terms of the nuclear deal and it would likely fall apart. If lawmakers do nothing, the deal remains in place.
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Congress is more likely to take up legislation proposed by two Republican Senators that would set new restrictions on Iran, including reimposing US nuclear sanctions if Tehran were deemed to be within one year of developing a nuclear weapon.
Trump directed US intelligence agencies to probe whether Iran might be working with North Korea on its weapons programs.
The president, who took office in January, had reluctantly certified the agreement twice before but has repeatedly blasted it as “the worst deal ever.” It was negotiated under his predecessor, former President Barack Obama.
Trump warned that without the fixes, he would likely pull the US out of the deal and snap previously lifted sanctions back into place. Without improvements, he said in a White House speech, “the agreement will be terminated.”
“It is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me as president at any time,” he said in a speech from the White House.
“We’ll see what happens over the next short period of time and I can do that instantaneously,” he told reporters when asked why he did not choose to scrap the deal now.
Sanctions against Revolutionary Guards
Trump also gave the US Treasury Department authority to impose economic sanctions against people in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or entities owned by it in response to what Washington calls its efforts to destabilize and undermine Iran’s opponents in the Middle East.
Congress will now have 60 days to decide whether to put the accord’s previous sanctions back into place, modify them or do nothing. Any decision to re-impose sanctions would automatically kill America’s participation in the deal.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other US officials offered details of the president’s new stance. Tillerson said Trump will ask lawmakers to come up with legislation that would automatically re-impose sanctions that were lifted under the deal should Iran cross any one of numerous nuclear and non-nuclear “trigger points.”
Those “trigger points” would include violations of the deal involving illicit atomic work or ballistic missile testing, support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and other groups that destabilize the region, human rights abuses and cyber warfare, Tillerson said.
The European parties to the accord - Germany, France and Britain - along with the other parties, Iran, Russia and China, have ruled out reopening the deal. But some, notably France, have signaled a willingness to tackle unresolved issues in supplementary negotiations.
Among those issues are the expiration of several restrictions on advanced nuclear activity under so-called “sunset clauses” that will allow Iran to begin ramping up its enrichment capabilities after 10 years, the end of an arms embargo and the eventual easing of demands for a halt to its missile program.
In the speech, Trump hoped to “recruit” the Europeans into joining his broad strategy, particularly by punishing the Revolutionary Guard, which he and his national security team believe is fomenting instability, violence and extremism throughout the Middle East and beyond, according to one official.
In anticipation of Trump’s announcements, Republican legislators have drawn up a new version of the law replacing the current 90-day timetable with “semi-annual” certifications, according to drafts seen by the Associated Press this week.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said in a statement on Friday that his panel had agreed to fresh certification criteria to include items that are also the province of the UN nuclear watchdog and require the US intelligence community to determine if Iran is carrying out illicit activity in facilities to which the International Atomic Energy Agency has not had access.
The US military said on Friday it was reviewing the “entire breadth” of its security cooperation activities, force posture and plans to support Trump’s new strategy on Iran.
A spokesman said the Pentagon was assessing the positioning of its forces as well as planning but offered few details.