Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPINION -

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump plans to de­mand to­day that the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment lim­it­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­grams be re­vised to make it stronger. He’ll claim that Iran isn’t com­ply­ing with the 2015 pact, which he has called “the worst deal ever ne­go­ti­ated.” His lan­guage will be Trumpian and tough, in­tended to show that he’s keep­ing his cam­paign prom­ise to “rip the deal up.” But Trump isn’t rip­ping it up. In­stead, he’s climb­ing down — slowly, awk­wardly, re­luc­tantly — from a po­si­tion that made no sense.

In for­mal terms, Trump is re­fus­ing to “cer­tify” that Iran is com­ply­ing with the nu­clear deal, which re­quires Tehran to re­duce its holdings of en­riched ura­nium and al­low in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors into its fa­cil­i­ties.

But Iran is, in fact, com­ply­ing with the agree­ment, as even U.S. of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge. The main U.S. com­plaint is that Iran has vi­o­lated the “spirit” of the deal by en­gag­ing in non-nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing mis­sile re­search, which the agree­ment doesn’t cover.

Even more awk­wardly, Trump’s clos­est aides want the deal to re­main in force. Last week, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis told a Se­nate hear­ing that it’s in the na­tional in­ter­est to keep the agree­ment alive. The rea­son is sim­ple: What­ever its flaws, the deal has stopped Iran from build­ing a nu­clear weapon for at least 10 years.

If the United States walks away from the agree­ment, Iran’s supreme leader would be free to restart ura­nium en­rich­ment — and most other coun­tries would blame Trump, not Iran.

Trump aides have there­fore qui­etly asked Congress not to reim­pose nu­clear sanc­tions on Iran. And in­stead of dis­man­tling the deal, Mat­tis and other ad­vis­ers have given Trump an al­ter­na­tive: Try to fix it.

They’ve listed changes they’d like to see, in­clud­ing more in­tru­sive in­spec­tions and longer “sun­set” pro­vi­sions. (The cur­rent deal lifts the ceil­ing on low-en­riched ura­nium and al­lows al­most un­re­stricted en­rich­ment be­gin­ning in 2030.)

They also want new lim­its on Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile ef­fort and in­ter­na­tional ac­tion against pro-Ira­nian forces in Iraq, Syria and other coun­tries.

Trump aides have floated the idea of de­mand­ing a for­mal “rene­go­ti­a­tion” of the 2015 deal, in keep­ing with lan­guage Trump oc­ca­sion­ally used dur­ing the cam­paign. But rene­go­ti­a­tion isn’t go­ing to hap­pen. All the other coun­tries in the agree­ment — in­clud­ing U.S. al­lies Bri­tain, France and Ger­many — have said it’s not fea­si­ble.

In­stead, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron has of­fered what some of­fi­cials call a “third way”: new ne­go­ti­a­tions to ex­tend the nu­clear deal’s sun­set pro­vi­sions and im­pose new lim­its on Iran’s mis­sile de­vel­op­ment, plus joint West­ern ac­tion against pro-Ira­nian proxy forces in the Mid­dle East.

Those are ideas with broad sup­port in Europe as well as Wash­ing­ton.

Trump and his aides are ac­tu­ally right when they say the 2015 pact should be strength­ened. Even the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials who ne­go­ti­ated the deal ac­knowl­edge that it didn’t set­tle ev­ery U.S. con­cern.

Here’s a best-case sce­nario: Af­ter Trump an­nounces his de­ci­sion, Congress, in­stead of de­mand­ing new sanc­tions, en­dorses ne­go­ti­a­tions to im­prove the deal, per­haps with ad­di­tional sanc­tions au­thor­ity to give the pres­i­dent more lever­age. Trump ap­points a tough, high-pow­ered spe­cial en­voy to pur­sue ne­go­ti­a­tions; some­one like Den­nis Ross, who worked on the Mid­dle East for Pres­i­dents Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Clin­ton.

Once talks are un­der way, Pres­i­dent Trump can an­nounce that he’s ac­com­plished the moral equiv­a­lent of rene­go­ti­a­tion, and de­clare at least par­tial vic­tory.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ter­nal de­bates have brought Trump to an un­ex­pected and un­wanted con­clu­sion, that end­ing the nu­clear agree­ment is not in the na­tional in­ter­est.

He won’t ad­mit it. He’ll con­tinue to de­nounce the deal. But he’s not walk­ing away from it — and that gives nu­clear diplo­macy with Iran another chance to sur­vive.

Doyle McManus

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