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National Security Desk / Apr. 30, 2018

Status Quo on Iran Won't Do

The next sanctions review is looming, and Europe is pressuring Trump to cave.

On May 12, President Donald Trump will decide whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran — sanctions that were suspended as part of the 2015 nuclear deal — or to approve waiving those sanctions for another 90 days. When he extended the sanctions waiver in January, the president stated bluntly, “This is a last chance. In the absence of [a renegotiated] agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.”

With the recent arrival of Iran hawk John Bolton as national security advisor, and with Trump’s track record of negotiating aggressively, it seems highly unlikely that the president will waive sanctions again. Recently approved Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that on Friday — no waiver absent a “substantial fix” negotiated with European leaders.

Not surprisingly, the pacifist Europeans who are wedded to the deal, as well as the Iranians who have benefited from the deal, have all been active in recent days and weeks trying to dissuade President Trump from reimposing sanctions. French President Emmanuel Macron came to Washington last week for a formal state visit, during which he and Trump offered their views on the nuclear deal. Macron made some conciliatory remarks, allowing that the deal could be improved, but the “four pillars” he suggested all amount to tinkering at the margins and do nothing to rectify the deal’s serious flaws.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also met with President Trump last week, and she, along with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, acknowledged Macron’s suggestions for improving the deal. Iran of course continues its defiant position that the deal is binding on the United States, warning of various dire results should President Trump withdraw.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that President Trump has said all along that his preference is to improve the nuclear deal, not simply blow it up and walk away. His critics, foreign and domestic, continue framing the issue only in terms of Trump killing the deal, whether to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy out of petty spite or to appeal to his base, but his goal is to negotiate a better deal. Timing would appear to be on his side, as Iran’s domestic stability and economic health have both plunged over the last year, leaving the Iranians vulnerable to the increased economic pressure sanctions would impose.

But as they say, time waits for no man. Both the Europeans and the Iranians likely hope to run out the clock on the Trump administration the same way they ran out the clock on George W. Bush. President Trump’s own position is likely to be weakened and even imperiled by the 2018 midterms, making it imperative that he and his supporters in Congress keep the pressure on Iran and the Europeans.

As we have noted before, it may prove impossible to negotiate an improved deal. But even that eventuality would be better to deal with now, before Iran follows North Korea into the nuclear club. Of the three options — the current deal, an improved deal, or no deal — the status quo is unquestionably the worst.

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