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U.S. Vows to Withdraw From Iran Nuclear Deal Without Major Changes

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/13/2018 Ian Talley, Felicia Schwartz, Laurence Norman

The Trump administration vowed on Friday to pull out of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear accord without substantial changes to it, setting the clock ticking on tough negotiations with Washington’s European allies.

It also imposed punitive new actions not directly related to Iran’s nuclear program meant to pressure Tehran over ongoing missile tests and a recent crackdown on Iranian protesters. After waiving penalties against Tehran on Friday, Mr. Trump next faces such a decision in May.

“I have outlined two possible paths forward,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “Either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw.”

While Mr. Trump says the 2015 deal gives Iran too much in sanctions relief for too few curbs on its nuclear program, European leaders have pushed back against major revisions. That, they fear, could give Tehran an excuse to walk away from the deal entirely, accelerating Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

The EU’s foreign service unit on Friday said the bloc would discuss Mr. Trump’s announcement. “We remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation” of the Iranian nuclear accord, a spokeswoman said.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a Twitter message after Mr. Trump’s announcement that the administration’s Iran policy amounts “to desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement, maliciously violating” its terms. The deal “is not renegotiable: Rather than repeating tired rhetoric, U.S. must bring itself into full compliance—just like Iran,” he tweeted.

China and Russia, which were part of the international group that negotiated the 2015 deal, also have strongly backed the accord and have dismissed the possibility of changing it.

Senior administration officials said the White House would consider remaining party to a nuclear deal with Iran, but only if it was modified. Any new deal requires no expiration on the threat that the U.S. and its European partners could snap stringent sanctions back into place if Iran ramps up its nuclear activities, these people said.

Mr. Trump said any new agreement also must strengthen the ability of international inspectors to investigate all sites in Iran, cover the country’s long-range missile program and allow an escalation of punitive measures if Iran gets close to developing a nuclear weapon.

The United Nations Atomic Agency says it has access to all sites in Iran but Tehran has warned it won’t allow inspectors access to sensitive military sites. Washington says the U.N. inspectors need to be more aggressive in overseeing what U.S. officials have called suspicious sites.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has backed European and U.N. contentions that Iran is currently in compliance with the deal.

“My policy is to deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon—not just for 10 years, but forever,” Mr. Trump said. “If Iran does not comply with any of these provisions, American nuclear sanctions would automatically resume.”

Administration officials have been urging Mr. Trump to keep the deal in place at least for now while they work to address some of his concerns.

When it was forged in 2015, officials from the Obama administration and European Union said the goal was to narrowly focus on Iran’s nuclear program. They say Iran committed to the most robust ever inspections and major limits on its program. The agreement committed Iran to never pursuing a nuclear weapon.

a group of people sitting at a table © Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA/REUTERS

Under the deal, the U.S. agreed to waive sanctions against Iran that are contained in a series of American laws. The waivers for each law must be renewed periodically to extend the sanctions relief. Beginning this week, Mr. Trump faced a series of waiver deadlines and needed to approve them to keep the U.S. commitments in place under the accord.

They were the first such deadlines since he declined in October to certify to Congress that Iran was complying with the accord. Mr. Trump said at that time that he would exit from it if European allies and U.S. lawmakers failed to take steps to fix it, but didn’t set a deadline.

But the president said Friday’s decision to extend relief was intended to buy more time to secure European support for the changes the administration is seeking.

“This is a last chance,” he said. “And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”

The administration is also negotiating with Congress to reimpose certain penalties if Iran takes certain actions.

Although lawmakers are still at odds over the extent of the changes Congress is willing to make, there has been some progress in negotiations between the White House and Sens. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Ben Cardin (D., Md.) on an amendment to 2015 legislation that allows for congressional oversight over the deal. The amendment would address some of Mr. Trump’s concerns about the deal, including limits on nuclear behavior that expire over time.

However, Mr. Trump’s announcement likely has harmed negotiations with Congress, Mr. Cardin said.

“Instead of leading an international negotiation on the agreement himself, however, the president’s statement making threats and dictating final terms of potential negotiations with Congress and Europe makes it more challenging to achieve this objective.”

European officials have largely been digging in their heels, resisting any changes to the deal, putting the U.S. and Europe potentially far apart and raising questions about the fate of the agreement.

A senior European diplomat said there was some relief that Washington had not scrapped the agreement. “The deal is still there,” the diplomat said. “That was our goal, that’s what we have been working on.”

The diplomat was skeptical Washington would find support among the countries that negotiated the agreement with Tehran. A second senior European official said Britain, France and Germany “reaffirm their strong support” of the accord.

French officials have expressed openness to levying sanctions outside the nuclear deal to counter Iran’s missile program and some diplomats have also signaled that they might be willing to look again at the deals terms in future years.

Antigovernment protests in Iran this month have added additional uncertainty to Mr. Trump’s deliberations, particularly after more than 20 people died and the government arrested over 4,000 people.

In a bid to show support for Iranian protesters, Treasury officials sanctioned the prison where officials say political prisoners suffer human rights abuses and several government agencies responsible for censorship in the country.

The new sanctions also name the head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, as one target.

In a statement Saturday carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the new sanctions, asserted that the nuclear deal wasn’t negotiable and refused to accept any changes to it. Iran would respond to the sanctioning of the head of its judiciary, the statement said, alleging the move violated international law and “crossed all red lines.”

Among the sanctions related to missile programs, the U.S. targeted two Chinese nationals and their related firms for providing material support to Tehran’s weapon programs.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com, Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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