Washington’s European allies were bracing for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord, after President Donald Trump said he would announce on Tuesday his decision on the landmark agreement that he has repeatedly condemned.
But some European officials are holding out hope that Mr. Trump, after leaving the agreement, would move slowly to reimpose sanctions, which would leave more time for negotiations.
Mr. Trump tweeted Monday that he would announce his decision at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
The message came as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made a last-minute appeal to save the accord, including meetings with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and an appearance on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite television programs, “Fox & Friends.”
“We need to find a way of fixing that and the president has been right to call attention to it,” Mr. Johnson said on Fox. “But you can’t do that without just throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
Mr. Johnson’s visit followed recent visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who urged Mr. Trump not to withdraw. On Monday, a European diplomat said that the chances of keeping the accord intact are “very small” and that the Trump administration appeared to believe it would better to make a fresh start on nuclear issues. “We don’t share that analysis,” he said.
Trump administration officials declined to say what specific decision Mr. Trump had made. But the president has been fiercely critical of the accord and there have been no indications that his concerns have been assuaged.
U.S. and European diplomats have worked hard in recent weeks to close the gaps on several issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and the scope of inspections.
But they have been at odds over the Trump administration’s insistence that sanctions should automatically take effect eight years from now if Iran begins to expand its capability to enrich uranium by installing more advanced centrifuges, as it now is allowed to do under the agreement.
Europeans don’t know what specific steps the U.S. will take if Mr. Trump decides to leave the agreement, including whether he will allow more time for diplomacy and how he hopes to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities if the agreement is jettisoned.
Under one scenario, which diplomats have dubbed a “soft exit,” Mr. Trump would refuse to waive sanctions on May 12 on Iran’s oil export and transactions by its Central Bank.
Under such a move, the U.S. Treasury Department website states that companies would have 180 days to wind down their deals before the sanctions take effect, which could give the U.S. and the Europeans months more to try to settle their differences over the accord.
But Mr. Trump could go further by deciding on a “hard exit.” That would entail stating now that he won’t waive sanctions either now or in the future, effectively removing the U.S. from the agreement and forcing firms doing business in Iran with hard decisions.
Whatever approach Mr. Trump adopts will also pertain to another set of sanctions that come up for a U.S. decision in July, including secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions engaging in significant transactions with Iranian entities.
Within the Trump administration, the criticism of the accord has been echoed by John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser. Mr. Pompeo has also been critical even as the State Department has led an effort to try to shore up the accord by negotiating a supplementary understanding with European allies.
Mr. Trump criticized former Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday for meeting with foreign officials to discuss ways to save the nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr. Pompeo recently told Congress that Tehran appears to be complying with the Iran agreement. In February, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report to Congress that the accord had extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material from a few months to a year.
American military officials have acknowledged that the accord has constrained Iran’s nuclear program at a time when the U.S. already has its hands full dealing with Iran’s more assertive posture in the region.
In March, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iran deal “addresses one of the principal threats that we deal with from Iran.” If the deal goes away, he said, “then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program.”
Mr. Trump has made criticism of the Iran accord, which was negotiated by the Obama administration, a staple on the campaign trail. He has called the agreement “the worst deal ever” and “a horrible agreement for the United States.” He has backed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who charged last week that Iran hadn’t been honest about previous nuclear weapons work, citing new evidence.
The dispute with Europe over the Iran deal is exacerbating building tensions among the trans-Atlantic allies over a host of other policy matters. The Trump administration’s steel-tariff threats, U.S. sanctions against a critical Russian aluminum supplier to the continent and the European Union’s proposal for a digital tax that could hit U.S. internet giants all have added to an increasingly strained relationship.
The Iran sanctions represent a potential threat to many European companies, including in Germany, Italy and Spain, that have deep business ties to Iran in the energy and industrial sectors. Oil prices could also go back up, hitting a European economy reliant on imports as it finally is gathering pace a decade after the financial crisis.
U.S. companies, such as Boeing Co., have said they would abide by U.S. laws. But new sanctions against Iran could jeopardize their multibillion-dollar projects begun since the deal was reached.
Pulling out of the deal “will leave many unanswered questions about what sanctions look like and the timeline,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior adviser at the Treasury Department who was involved in the Obama administration’s rollout of sanctions against Iran.
There likely will be no immediate change in the sanctions, said Ms. Rosenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
It takes months to craft the guidance necessary to explain to companies, banks, foreign financial regulators and central bank governors exactly what the Trump administration’s new sanctions will mean in practice, she said.
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