The New York Times
In the midst of a nuclear crisis with North Korea, the Trump administration signaled on Tuesday that it is paving the way for a simultaneous standoff with Iran, suggesting it could refuse to certify that Tehran is complying with the 2015 nuclear accord. But the administration could leave it up to Congress to decide whether to withdraw from the deal.
In a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ambassador Nikki R. Haley, the United States representative to the United Nations, presented the administration’s argument that Iran was in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement. But by not actually withdrawing from the accord, President Trump could avoid a direct breach with the other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — which appear to agree with international inspectors that Iran has complied with its direct obligations in the agreement.
Administration officials said there was little doubt now that Mr. Trump would not certify Iran’s compliance again, as he is required to do every six months. The president said as much in July, when he reluctantly signed the most recent certification. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” Mr. Trump said.
On Tuesday Ms. Haley went even further, saying that Mr. Trump would be entirely justified if he decided to decertify an accord he had declared during the campaign was “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
“If the president finds that he cannot in good faith certify Iranian compliance, he would initiate a process whereby we move beyond narrow technicalities and look at the big picture,” Ms. Haley said. In the administration’s view, the larger picture encompasses Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its continued missile testing, all issues not covered in the details of the accord.
Ms. Haley said that decertification would not mean abrogating the nuclear deal entirely, but would force Congress to take a stand that many one-time opponents would like to avoid.
“I get that Congress doesn’t want this,’’ Ms. Haley said. “This is not an easy situation for anyone.’’ She added: “But our lives are not about being easy. Our lives are about being right.”
Ms. Haley’s comments came on a day when Mr. Trump was looking for support from world leaders for the most severe sanctions against North Korea that the United States has ever considered: a cutoff of oil flowing into the country. Such a move would require the cooperation of China, which supplies nearly all of North Korea’s oil. The sanctions are likely to be the main subject of discussion in an expected phone call between Mr. Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.
As Mr. Trump spoke on Tuesday about North Korea with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, argued during a meeting in China that tightening sanctions would only lead to conflict. “It’s a road to nowhere,’’ Mr. Putin said. “Whipping up military hysteria — this will lead to no good. It could cause a global catastrophe and an enormous loss of life.”
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who moderated a question-and-answer session after Ms. Haley’s speech, said the ambassador should be given credit for publicly laying out the administration’s thinking on Iran.
But, Ms. Pletka said, “it is, frankly, a little odd to see the president of the United States punt his constitutional prerogatives down Pennsylvania Avenue” to Congress.
Just last week, international nuclear inspectors declared that the latest inspections found no evidence that Iran had materially breached the agreement, complicating Mr. Trump’s plan. But Ms. Haley said that Iran’s compliance was almost beside the point.
No matter what Iran is doing, “U.S. law requires the president to also look at whether the Iran deal is appropriate, proportionate and in our national security interests,” Ms. Haley argued.
One reason for the unease about simply renouncing the deal is the united support for it among the United States’ European allies as well as Russia and China, whose backing for powerful sanctions against Iran were crucial in forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. If the administration were to jettison the deal now, few of its former partners would likely reimpose sanctions, leaving Iran potentially far better off than it was before the deal.
Although administration officials have repeatedly emphasized to European allies that Mr. Trump’s “America First” slogan does not mean “America Alone,” going it alone on the Iran nuclear deal would be just fine, Ms. Haley said Tuesday.
“This is about U.S. national security. This is not about European security. This is not about anyone else,” she said, a remark that left several European diplomats in the audience fuming.
While the North Korea and Iran nuclear programs are quite different — the North has a small arsenal of atomic weapons, and Iran does not — the decisions about how to handle them are closely related, many experts argue. If the United States abandoned a deal with Iran that the previous president negotiated, there would be little reason for the North to think the same might not happen in any agreement it struck.
Ms. Haley dismissed concerns about North Korea’s reaction.
“We should always let every country know, whether it’s North Korea, Iran or anyone else, that we will always look out for our interests, our security, and make sure that it’s working for us, not making sure that it works for everyone else,” she said.
Forcing Congress to take a politically difficult vote on the Iran nuclear accord would be similar to the president’s recent decision on whether to save an Obama administration program shielding the children of immigrants from deportation. The administration announced Tuesday that the program was being rescinded but that Congress would have six months to legalize it if it so chose.
Still, Ms. Haley emphasized that nothing had been decided.
“I am not saying this should go to Congress. I’m not saying we should get out of the deal. I’m not saying anything in terms of what should or shouldn’t happen,” she said. “What I am saying is we owe it to ourselves to look at every aspect of this deal.”
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been pushing for precisely the decertification strategy Ms. Haley outlined, hailed the speech.
“This lays the groundwork for the president to decertify the deal if he chooses to do so but it doesn’t necessarily follow that Congress will reinstate the J.C.P.O.A. sanctions,” he said, referring to the nuclear deal by its official acronym.
Jonathan Finer, who served as chief of staff to John Kerry, the former secretary of state, said that Ms. Haley’s speech “sounded like a pretext for deliberately unraveling the deal, without offering a serious alternative or explaining how they would deal with the consequences.”
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