Despite pressure from UK and France, US president expected to declare Tehran in violation of agreement but Senate could yet block reimposition of sanctions
European governments fear a concerted effort to persuade Donald Trump to continue to certify the Iran nuclear deal may have failed and are now looking for other ways to try to salvage the two year-old agreement.
European lobbying efforts are now focused on Congress which will have two months to decide – in the absence of Trump’s endorsement of the 2015 deal – whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions.
Fresh sanctions could in turn trigger Iranian withdrawal and a ramping up of its now mostly latent nuclear programme, taking the Middle East back to the brink of another major conflict.
When Trump threatened to withhold certification by a congressional deadline of 15 October, the UN general assembly in mid-September was seen by the European signatories of the agreement – the UK, France and Germany – as the last best chance to convince Trump of the dangers of destroying it.
But according to the accounts of several diplomats involved, the effort got nowhere.
Angela Merkel, in the final stages of an election campaign, could not attend, so it was left to Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron to use their meetings with the US president in New York to make a personal plea to keep the deal alive.
The French president made no headway. To his consternation, Trump kept repeating that under the deal, the Iranians would have a nuclear bomb in five years, and nothing Macron could say would persuade him otherwise.
May’s session with the US president two days later was equally fruitless. She used half the 50-minute meeting trying to engage Trump on the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but he grew testy in response. He said he had decided on what to do, but flatly refused to tell her what that was. And he shrugged off her arguments, telling her “You make your decisions; I’ll make mine”. A British diplomat described it later as a “robust” conversation.
Another opportunity for the Europeans to defend the deal came on the evening of 20 September, when the foreign ministers of all signatory nations attended a meeting of the Joint Commission charged with implementing it, chaired by the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillersonand his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, both attended the meeting around a long table in one of the security council’s meeting rooms, marking the first high-level meeting between Tehran and the Trump administration.
There was no chance of any personal chemistry breaking the ice, however. It was a perfunctory meeting, with Tillerson later observing drily that the two men at least “didn’t throw shoes at one another”. Mogherini convened the session observing that Iran had been abiding by the terms of the agreement.
When it was Tillerson’s turn, he did not repeat the arguments the administration made in public that Iran was somehow in violation. Instead, he conceded that Tehran was keeping to its obligations but he observed that he served a president, and had been confirmed by a Congress, who reflected the will of the people – and they did not like the deal.
The former oil executive suggested the other countries around the table had made a “mistake” in striking a deal with the Obama administration which implemented it through executive order and did not seek congressional ratification. We want to renegotiate the terms, Tillerson said, but if other parties refuse, what are we to do?
When their turn came, the European ministers around the table all observed that Iran was keeping its side of the bargain but expressed willingness to confront Iran separately about its missile programme and its role supporting armed groups around the region. The Russians and Chinese, meanwhile, were adamant there could be no renegotiation.
Speaking near the end of the meeting, Zarif declared Tillerson was “ill-informed” for failing to acknowledge the fact that the JCPOA had been enshrined in a security council resolution, which the US, a permanent council member, was now threatening to violate. Tillerson ignored the reference to the UN resolution, and repeated his line that the JCPOA was not a formal ratified treaty, so it should be open to renegotiation.
Emerging from the meeting, Mogherini was clearly furious, and she echoed Zarif’s argument in her own remarks to the press.
“This is not a bilateral agreement. This is not an agreement that involves six or seven parties,” she told reporters. “This is a UN security council resolution with an annex … So it doesn’t belong to one country, to six countries, to seven countries, to the European Union – it belongs to the international community.”
In a postmortem teleconference last week, the political directors from the foreign ministries of UK, France and Germany agreed to plan for the worse and marshall European political resources for a potential rearguard action lobbying in Congress.
“The E3 [the three European states]are keen not to make it all about the president’s decision,” one diplomat said. “Even if the decision is not to certify, we will want to see on what terms he passes it to Congress.”
One possibility is that Trump will wound the deal by refusing to certify, but not push for a restoration of sanctions. The state department is reported to be talking to Congress to amend its legislation so that Trump does not have to certify the deal every 90 days, a political embarrassment. But such manoeuvres also open up new opportunities for opponents of the JCPOA to insert “poison pills” into the legislation that will ultimately succeed in killing it off.
The Senate currently appears delicately balanced on the issue, with almost all Republicans and Democrats likely to vote by party line. The majority leaders in the Senate and the House, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, are reluctant to get bogged down in gruelling debate on an issue they believe the president should decide.
“Congress doesn’t want to get in the middle of this and own it,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department official now at the Centre for a New American Security.
However, the hand of the congressional leadership could be forced by hardline opponents of the deal who are seeking to make it a test of conservative credentials for senators wary about defying Trump.
One of the most vociferous critics of the Iran deal in the Senate, Tom Cotton, launched his campaign in a speech on Tuesday. He urged Trump not to certify the deal in order to clear the way for a period of “coercive diplomacy” and to persuade European governments, Russia, China and Iran to open the agreement for renegotiation. He backed the threat of more sanctions and ultimately “calibrated strikes” against Iran’s nuclear programme.
“The United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” Cotton told the Council on Foreign Relations. “If they choose to rebuild it we can destroy it again.”
On the same day, however, the defence secretary, James Mattis, gave strong backing to the nuclear deal, telling the Senate that Iran was abiding by the terms and that the agreement was serving national interests. His intervention, backed by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, is likely to make it harder for Trump to withhold certification, and could swing votes in a Senate decision on sanctions.
The Europeans can count on resistance from party leaders irritated at having an executive decision palmed off on them. There are also signs that most if not all the four Democrats who voted against the JCPOA two years ago would not vote to destroy it now.
Among the 52 Republican senators, meanwhile, there are likely to be a handful reluctant to take responsibility for steering the US towards another conflict.
“Congress has an insatiable appetite for sanctions. But it would be disastrous to impose new sanctions on Iran now and senators know that,” said Joe Cirincione, the head of the Ploughshares Fund, a non-proliferation advocacy group. How the vote would go, he added, was anybody’s guess.
Even if the JCPOA’s enemies did not manage to kill it with their first shot, said Reza Marashi, the research director of the National Iranian American Council, they are unlikely to give up.
“The Iran hawks will try to have multiple bites of the cherry and will keep pushing for more votes,” Marashi said. If the Europeans wanted to try to save the JCPOA, he added, “they now have very little time”.