When Trump last publicly addressed the status of the Iran agreement, in mid-October, he indicated his patience had worn thin with what he has called “the worst deal ever,” and demanded that Congress and European countries take action to address what he considers the deal’s weakness.“[I]n the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated,” Trump said in an Oct. 13 speech.
The three months since then have shown little progress toward such a solution.
In an effort to save the deal, members of Congress are discussing legislation that would give Trump political cover to extend the deal. But it’s not clear whether Republicans and Democrats can agree on even a symbolic measure in time.
“It’s entirely possible that Trump tells Congress and the Europeans, ‘I gave you 90 days to get your act together and you didn’t — and I’m done,’” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank with close ties to the Trump White House.
The deal was negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration, along with five other nations. It lifted U.S. and European sanctions on Iran in exchange for strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. The deal’s supporters say military action was the only realistic alternative to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Critics say the deal allowed Iran to retain too much nuclear capability and that the sanctions should have been given more time to bite.
The deadlines for Trump begin on Jan. 11, when the agreement requires him — as it does every 90 days — to certify whether Tehran is meeting its obligations under the deal. International inspectors who visit the country’s nuclear facilities have repeatedly said Iran is doing so. But Trump refused to certify Iranian compliance in mid-October, citing in part Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East.
Trump’s refusal to certify had no immediate practical effect on the deal, though under the law it triggered a 60-day window for Congress to restore the sanctions by a simple majority, without the possibility of a Senate filibuster. While expectations were high for some congressional action that Trump could point to as a response to his complaints, Congress became consumed by tax reform and took no action. One hard-line measure that attracted attention this fall, devised by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), went nowhere after Democrats made clear they would strongly oppose it.
Even more consequential are upcoming deadlines for Trump to continue the temporary waiver of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which the deal dictates will not be permanently repealed for several more years. The president must renew the waivers every 120 days. Sources familiar with the law said multiple waiver deadlines arrive between Jan. 12 and Jan. 17, forcing Trump to reassess the deal.
If Trump rejects the waivers and restores biting sanctions, Tehran is certain to claim the U.S. has breached the agreement and — supporters of the deal say — may restart its nuclear program. That could court a military confrontation with the U.S. and Israel. At a minimum, the U.S would find itself isolated abroad given that every other party to the deal — France, the U.K., Germany, China and Russia — all strongly oppose a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.