Mixed messages on Iran, but tangible moves toward reversal haven't happened yet
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the way forward on the Iran nuclear agreement -- a deal that Donald Trump harshly criticized on the campaign trail.
The flurry of activity on the Iran agreement began in mid April with the release of a letter written by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The April 18 letter provided an assessment -- one required every 90 days -- of whether Iran was holding up its end of the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement was signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with assistance from the European Union.
Previous iterations of the 90-day letter had been signed during the Obama administration, but this marked the first time that the Trump administration had issued such a document.
The business end of the letter was this: "This letter certifies that the conditions of Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, including as amended by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-17), enacted May 22, 2015, are met as of April 18, 2017."
Translation: Iran hasn't done anything to breach the agreement. If the United States had found violations by Iran, it would have had options for retaliating, such as by re-imposing sanctions that had been lifted. But it couldn't find any violations.
Such a conclusion offered nothing concrete to advance Trump's campaign promise that he would renegotiate the deal. If anything, it affirmed that the agreement would stay put, at least for now.
That said, the letter -- along with comments by Tillerson at an April 19 press availability -- effectively ratcheted up the rhetoric against Iran in ways that fit with Trump's overall skepticism of a diplomatic path forward with Iran.
In the preface to the announcement of Tillerson's letter to Ryan, the State Department wrote that Tillerson was raising concerns "about Iran's role as a state sponsor of terrorism."
The letter to Ryan went on to say that the president had ordered a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Iran agreement "that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States."
During his appearance with reporters, Tillerson read a statement that addressed "Iran's alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time."
While negotiators of the nuclear deal had set aside terrorism and related issues from the agreement, Tillerson offered a litany of U.S. concerns about Iran's actions beyond nuclear policy.
Tillerson said that Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria; has sought to destabilize Iraq and Israel; has backed the Houthi rebels in Yemen and in so doing has threatened Saudi Arabia's southern border; has interfered with U.S. naval vessels; has supported cyber and terrorist attacks; and has arbitrarily detained foreigners on false charges.
In addition to this tough words on non-nuclear issues, Tillerson also sharpened his rhetoric against the nuclear deal itself, saying it "fails to achieve of the objective of a non-nuclear Iran."
"It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state," he told journalists. "This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran."
Finally, during a joint appearance with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on April 20, Trump said, "Iran has not lived up to the spirit of the agreement and they have to do that -- they have to do that. So, we will see what happens."
Assessing the promise
So what does this mean for Trump's promise to renegotiate the nuclear agreement?
The rhetoric suggests the administration still wants to follow through. But neither the letter to Ryan nor Tillerson's comments constitutes concrete steps in that direction.
The strongest piece of evidence of moving towards renegotiation is the announcement of the inter-agency review. However, that news by itself is not necessarily a big deal, experts said.
"Policy reviews are a given -- they happen every time there's a turnover" in the White House, said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University. "They may produce significant results, but as of now, this team is saying that this deal is going to remain as is, and in effect."
Nephew said it's hard to argue that any administration, even a Democratic one, wouldn't have undertaken a similar review.
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School, agreed.
"All Tillerson said was that they would review the application of sanctions, not that they were coming up with renegotiation ideas," Bunn said.
And Ariane M. Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said that there's a broad consensus among those familiar with the deal that no single component of the deal can be renegotiated, short of the entire deal being renegotiated.
"Of course, Iran will not come to the table to negotiate a deal if the U.S. is already contemplating not upholding its end of the bargain under the existing deal," she said. "So, Trump isn't getting closer to negotiating a totally different deal."
We will re-evaluate this promise periodically, but for now, we see a heightening of rhetoric against Iran -- much of it on issues, such as terrorism, that are formally separate from the agreement itself -- yet an absence of concrete steps to fast-track renegotiation efforts.
Rather, the most tangible effect of the administration's recent activity is to officially confirm that Iran has been abiding by its end of the deal -- a position that would make the fulfillment of Trump's promise harder, not easier. So we're keeping this promise at Stalled.
Rex Tillerson, letter to Paul Ryan, April 18, 2017
Rex Tillerson, remarks at a press availability, April 19, 2017
NBC News, "Trump Administration Orders Review of Iran Nuclear Deal Sanctions: Tillerson," April 19, 2017
Reuters, "U.S. says Iran complies with nuke deal but orders review on lifting sanctions," April 19, 2017
Email interview with Richard Nephew, senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University, April 19, 2017
Email interview with Matthew Bunn, nuclear specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School, April 19, 2017
Email interview with Ariane M. Tabatabai, visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, April 20, 2017
Trump repeats rhetorical support, but no concrete evidence yet
As a candidate, President Donald Trump promised that he would renegotiate the nuclear agreement between Iran and five world powers, including the United States.
Since Trump's promise was declared, he has remained fairly quiet on the matter.
First, some background.
In 2015, the Obama administration finalized an international agreement to limit Iran's nuclear capability. Sometimes called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the agreement included Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
The deal stipulated that Iran commit to not pursue nuclear weapons, with an international inspection regime to verify that pledge. As long as Iran abided by the terms of the agreement, the United States and other countries agreed to lift sanctions.
The agreement was enacted, but most Republicans criticized the deal as overly lenient.
So far, however, nuclear-policy experts see little overt action to upend the agreement.
"I think it is absolutely not the case that he's renegotiated the deal nor even really indicated an intention to," said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University. "His own party in Congress is focused on dealing with regional issues, and Chris Ford, his nonproliferation person, essentially said the JCPOA will stand."
Ford, the National Security Council's senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation, indicated that position in late March.
Nephew said it's certainly possible that the policy Ford articulated could be reversed.
Indeed, on April 5, during a joint appearance with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Trump said, "The Iran deal made by the previous administration is one of the worst deals I have ever witnessed, and I've witnessed some beauties. It's one of the worst deals I've ever witnessed. It should never have been made. It was totally one-sided against the United States, and frankly, against much of the Middle East. … I will do what I have to do with respect to the Iran deal."
It's possible that negotiations to reverse the deal are under way out of the public eye, and if they come to fruition, we'll revise our ruling. For now, though, despite Trump's continued rhetorical support for reversing the deal, there is no concrete evidence of a change in policy. We rate the promise Stalled.
Obama White House, Implementation Day, January 16, 2016
CNN transcript, An Iran Nuclear Deal Opposition Rally, September 9, 2015
PolitiFact, PolitiFact Sheet: 6 things to know about the Iran nuclear deal, September 8, 2015
CNN, 'Iran nuclear deal full of complex issues and moving parts,' July 14, 2015
U.S. Department of State, Iran Sanctions, July 14, 2015
Time, Donald Trump's Speech to AIPAC, March 21, 2016
U.S. Department of Treasury, Treasury Sanctions Supporters of Iran's Ballistic Missile Program and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, February 3, 2017
Reuters, "Trump administration to review goal of world without nuclear weapons: aide," March 21, 2017
Email interview with Richard Nephew, Columbia University, April 5, 2017