Europe’s leaders bypass Trump to salvage Iran deal
European governments were last week looking for other ways to try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal after it appeared that a concerted effort to persuade Donald Trump to continue to certify the two-year-old agreement had failed.
Last Friday several media outlets confirmed what has been suspected in Washington and foreign capitals for some time: that Trump will overrule top national security aides and will not certify the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, on the grounds that it does not serve US security interests.
European lobbying efforts have focused on Congress, which would have two months to decide – in the absence of Trump’s endorsement – 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 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.
In a postmortem teleconference late last month, the political directors from the foreign ministries of the UK, France and Germany agreed to plan for the worst and marshal 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,” a diplomat said.
Asked about administration policy last Wednesday, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said: “We’ll have a recommendation for the president. We are going to give him a couple of options on how to move forward to advance the important policy towards Iran.”
One possibility was that Trump would wound the deal by refusing to certify it, but not push for a restoration of sanctions. The state department was reported to be talking to Congress to amend its legislation so that Trump did not have to certify the deal every 90 days, a political embarrassment.
The Senate has appeared 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 debate on an issue they believe the president should decide.
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 of Arkansas, 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.
However, the defense secretary, James Mattis, has backed the nuclear deal. His intervention is likely to make it harder for Trump to withhold certification, and could swing votes in a Senate decision on sanctions.