Europe’s lead­ers by­pass Trump to sal­vage Iran deal

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Ju­lian Borger

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.

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