Donald Trump has long trashed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever,” a “disaster” that didn’t cover nearly enough of the Islamist-led country’s nefarious behavior.
In recent weeks, however, the president has indicated that the Barack Obama-era deal might not be so bad after all.
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Trump has repeatedly urged Iran to engage in negotiations with him, while saying that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are his chief concern — “A lot of progress has been made. And they’d like to talk,” Trump asserted Tuesday at the White House. His aides and allies, meanwhile, have recently suggested that Iran and other countries should follow the guidelines of a deal they themselves have shunned as worthless.
At times, analysts and former officials say, it sounds like Trump wants to strike a deal that essentially mirrors the agreement that his White House predecessor inked — even if he’d never be willing to admit it. Iranian officials seem willing to egg him on, saying they’ll talk so long as Trump lifts the sanctions he’s imposed on them and returns to the 2015 Iran deal. And as European ministers warn that the existing deal is nearly extinct, Trump may feel like he is backed into a corner and running out of options.
“Trump got rid of the Iran nuclear deal because it was Barack Obama’s agreement,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who helped oversee the 2015 deal’s implementation. “If you were to present to Trump the same deal and call it Trump’s deal, he’d be thrilled.”
The administration’s confusing messaging is a result of warring between two major factions, U.S. officials say, with Trump in his own separate lane. The infighting has been deeply frustrating to those involved in the debate. “In the past, even when I personally disagreed with a policy, I could explain its logic,” a U.S. official said. “Now I can’t even do that.”
Trump quit the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposing sanctions the U.S. had lifted on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. He said the deal should have tackled Iran’s non-nuclear activities, such as its sponsorship of terrorist groups, and blasted the expiration dates on some of its clauses.
For a year afterward, Iran continued to abide by the deal’s terms, hoping that the other countries involved — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — could offer Tehran the economic relief Trump had taken away. But as that relief has failed to materialize, Iran has begun backing away from its commitments.
Tehran recently breached limits on its enrichment and stockpiling of uranium and has promised more infractions in the coming months. The U.S. has also accused Iran of attacking several international oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the Pentagon has sent warships and more troops to the region in response.
As tensions have spiked, one voice pushing for a deal has been Trump.
He’s said he’s “not looking for war,” wants to talk to Iran without preconditions and isn’t interested in regime change. He called off a military strike on Iran over its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone, overriding the advice of several top aides. His main public demand is that Iran not build nuclear weapons. In return, Trump has offered to help revive Iran’s sanctions-battered economy.
To observers, that sounds suspiciously like the 2015 deal.
“They can’t have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Tuesday. “We want to help them. We will be good to them. We will work with them. We will help them in any way we can. But they can’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Trump occasionally nods to other disputes with Iran, such as its funding of militia groups, ballistic missile testing and Tehran’s support of rebel forces in Yemen, but nuclear weapons dominate his rhetoric.
In June, Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency — the body that inspects Iran’s nuclear program under the 2015 agreement — called on Iran to stick to the deal after an IAEA inspection report detailed a disputed potential violation.
“Iran has claimed that it continues to comply with the JCPOA, but it is now reported to be in clear violation of the deal,” Wolcott said, referring to the agreement’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “This should be of great concern to all of us. The United States calls on Iran to return to compliance without delay.”
Afterward, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus faced questions about why the U.S. wants Iran to adhere to a deal that it has claimed doesn’t truly constrain its nuclear ambitions.
“I don’t think it’s contradictory in the fact that we have stated very loudly since the beginning of this administration that we do not want the Iranian regime to get a nuclear weapon,” Ortagus said. “We think it would be disastrous for the Middle East. I — we haven’t changed our position.”
In a statement to POLITICO, a State Department official called the JCPOA “a flawed deal because it did not permanently address our concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and destabilizing conduct. The U.S. is seeking a deal with Iran that comprehensively addresses the regime’s destabilizing behavior — not just their nuclear program, but also their missile program, support to terrorism, and malign regional behavior.”
Several European officials express astonishment at the audacity of the Trump administration demanding that Iran adhere to the deal when the U.S. the one who breached the agreement in the first place. Some said they were not surprised that Iran may have taken actions in the Persian Gulf as payback for the U.S. abandonment of the deal.
Europeans “know that the original sin causing the current escalation in the Gulf is the U.S. violation of the Iran nuclear deal,” said Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. “At the same time, they are terribly concerned about the escalation and the threat it poses to the Middle East and to Europe itself.”
U.S. officials and outside observers say there appear to be two main competing factions inside the Trump administration when it comes to Iran policy.
Both camps are convinced that Iran’s Islamist regime is a bad actor in the Middle East. Neither particularly cares for the nuclear deal, either, viewing it as too weak a document.
But one group, led by national security adviser John Bolton, is simply more hardline than the other.
Bolton, who has previously called for regime change in Iran, and his supporters appear determined to kill the deal and heap on sanctions, erasing Iran’s ability to trade beyond its borders. Their version of what the administration calls a “maximum pressure campaign” seems to aim for a major reckoning in Iran, though they demure on whether that could involve a U.S.-led ouster of the regime or would simply set the stage for ordinary Iranians to revolt.
The other group appears to not have a visible leader, but it seems willing to allow the nuclear deal to tenuously remain intact, while ramping up economic sanctions that starve the regime of resources. This group, for instance, is hoping for the success of a European financial mechanism built to help Iran more easily obtain non-sanctioned goods, thus possibly helping sustaining the deal in hobbled form. That way, the group argues, Iran can’t race toward a nuclear weapon, but it also will be unable to spend as much funding militias and terrorist groups in the region.
A second U.S. official said one main difference between the two groups is that Bolton-led crew has no desire to make any sort of deal with Iran, while the other side believes that under enough pressure, Iran would be willing to negotiate a new, better agreement than the one in 2015.
“Bolton thinks he’s playing the longer game. That he can’t leave this administration having given an inch on Iran,” the official said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is generally believed to be in the camp that wants a deal, but he’s also laid out a set of 12 conditions on Iran that are so broad they may be damaging the odds of talks. A third U.S. official who confirmed the outlines of the internal debate said Pompeo may be worried about his future in the Republican Party and whether engaging in any sort of negotiation with Iran could damage it.
The result is a cacophony of voices speaking for the administration, including some out of sync with Trump.
“We’ve got very different messages because they don’t seem to have the same end goals,” the first U.S. official said of the various Trump aides involved. “We’re studiously ignoring ‘the deal that shall not be named’ in our official talking points, but in the same breath demanding that Iran adhere to conditions that were part of the deal.”
Blanc, the Obama administration official, said what Trump seems to want is a grand show, the type that he’s gotten in his one-on-one meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But there are serious political risks for Iran’s leaders in meeting Trump, especially after the president walked away from a deal that was hard to sell to all of Iran’s competing political factions in the first place.
Trump, Blanc said, “has an instinctive understanding that he’s not going to get that pageant if Iran thinks he’s pursuing a regime change policy.”
Perhaps sensing this, Trump on Tuesday went out of his way to note that he didn’t want to oust the government in Tehran. “We’re not looking, by the way, for regime change because some people say [we are] looking for regime change,” he said. “We’re not looking for regime change.”
In the meantime, Iran appears determined to exploit the divisions within the Trump administration, as well as the fissures between the U.S. and Europe over the Iran deal.
Iran’s recent calculated breaches of its nuclear pledges are meant to increase pressure on the Europeans to find ways around U.S. sanctions. And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif even uses Twitter to taunt the Trump team over these disagreements, lambasting the president’s top aides as the “B-Team.”
The way out Zarif mentions? Presumably a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal.