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Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy July 15, 2020

Trump’s pledge to renegotiate Iran deal remains at standstill as election nears

President Donald Trump has not struck a new deal with Iran after pulling the U.S. out of the Obama-era nuclear arms pact, and the chances of renegotiation are slim after the U.S. killed top Iranian military leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike.

Iran responded to the January airstrike with a statement announcing that Iran would no longer adhere to restrictions on uranium enrichment under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018.

The two countries had not renegotiated the deal before Soleimani's killing, despite Trump's vows. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump vowed to replace the deal President Barack Obama signed with Iran and five other countries, saying he'd land a "totally different deal."

Trump tweeted optimism about the prospect of a new agreement June 5, urging Iran to "make the Big deal" before the 2020 election. But experts say that Iran has been reluctant to find a middle ground, and that the Soleimani killing made a new deal less likely.

"There are almost no signs of any real chance of negotiations, much less a deal, during the remainder of this presidential term," said Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former State Department official.

Georgetown University's Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear policy expert at the Atlantic Council who has advised several Republican presidential campaigns and served under the administrations of George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, agreed that renegotiation before November's election is "unlikely."

Both experts said that while the Trump administration has remained open to communications, Iran is not eager to talk. Nephew said the Iranians have effectively determined to wait to see if Trump wins re-election before deciding whether to pursue further negotiations.

Before Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, we found that Iran was largely compliant with the terms of the agreement. We reported that while the deal was in effect, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the foremost authority on the matter, said it found that Iran had committed no violations — aside from some minor infractions that were rectified.

Responding to Trump's June 5 tweet, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, wrote in a tweet that the U.S. and Iran had a deal before Trump's advisers "made a dumb bet" by pulling out of it. "Up to you to decide when you want to fix it," Zarif said.

That fix hasn't come. Instead, the Trump administration has ramped up sanctions, tacking new penalties on top of the sanctions that existed before the original nuclear pact went into effect. 

The U.S. has also sought to pressure the United Nations to extend an embargo blocking arms sales to and by Iran. The embargo is set to expire in October 2020.

"The strategy remains the same: to place 'maximum pressure' on the Iranian regime to force it to the table to renegotiate the nuclear deal," Kroenig said. "The United States has succeeded in placing unprecedented levels of pressure on Iran, primarily through sanctions. The regime is also vulnerable due to the COVID-19 outbreak and a weak healthcare system."

Some of the demands — including that Iran stop enriching uranium and end its relationship with the terrorist group Hezbollah — are "beyond Iran's willingness to even discuss," Nephew said.

Soleimani's killing is yet another key stumbling block to U.S. efforts to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. And if Iran chooses to retaliate further at a later date, the U.S. would likely find it even harder to iron out a new accord with them, Nephew said.

"It made negotiating with Iran under Trump extraordinarily hard," he said. "Soleimani's killing was seen by leadership in Iran, if not the entire population, as a martyrdom."

The two countries could eventually strike a new deal. But for now, the standstill continues.

We rate this Promise Broken.

Our Sources

The Wall Street Journal, "Europe Seeks Way Around a Diplomatic Clash With U.S. Over Iran," June 17, 2020

Donald J. Trump on Twitter, June 5, 2020

Javad Zarif on Twitter, June 5, 2020

The New York Times, "Urging Iran to 'Make the Big Deal,' Trump Ties Nuclear Negotiations to Election," June 5, 2020

Arms Control Association, "Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy With Iran," May 2020

Reuters, "U.S. will not let Iran buy arms when U.N. embargo ends: Pompeo," April 29, 2020

The White House, "Executive Order on Imposing Sanctions with Respect to Additional Sectors of Iran," Jan. 10, 2020

Islamic Republic News Agency, "Iran takes final step by abandoning JCPOA restrictions," Jan. 5, 2020

NPR, "Iran Abandons Nuclear Deal Limitations In Wake Of Soleimani Killing," Jan. 5, 2020

U.S. Department of State, "After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy," May 21, 2018

PolitiFact, "Trump, top officials send mixed messages on Soleimani, Iran," Jan. 13, 2020

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump's vow to renegotiate a deal with Iran is at a standstill," Jan. 4, 2019

PolitiFact, "Trump withdraws U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. Here's what you need to know," May 8, 2018

Email interview with Richard Nephew, senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, June 19, 2020

Email interview with Matthew Kroenig, associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and deputy director in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, June 19, 2020

John Kruzel
By John Kruzel January 4, 2019

Donald Trump’s vow to renegotiate a deal with Iran is at a standstill

President Donald Trump has not renegotiated a deal with Iran after withdrawing the United States from an Obama-era nuclear pact.

The two countries are at loggerheads following Trump's exit in May from the international agreement to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for lifting sanctions on the Islamic regime, though Trump has held the door open to future talks.

"I do believe that they will probably end up wanting to meet, and I'm ready to meet any time they want to," Trump said in a July press conference at the White House. "If we could work something out that's meaningful, not the waste of paper that the other deal was, I would certainly be willing to meet."

The president added that he would convene a meeting "anytime they want" — and without preconditions.

But hours later, Trump's secretary of state said the United States would engage in talks only under certain conditions.

"If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to making fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, agree that it's worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he's prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC, alluding to a list of 12 criteria he previously outlined in May.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuffed Trump's offer to meet, and accused the United States of having a history of negotiating in bad faith.

"Even if we ever — impossible as it is — negotiated with the U.S., it would never ever be with the current U.S. administration," Khamenei said.

Since then, tensions between the two countries have only escalated.

The Trump administration reimposed a second round of sanctions against Tehran in November, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would "proudly break." A previous set of sanctions went into effect in August.

A new deal could eventually emerge. Given the current state of play, we rate this promise Stalled.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson May 8, 2018

Trump announces U.S. exit from Iran nuclear deal

President Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the agreement to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In a statement at the White House on May 8, 2018, Trump said, "I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction. Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons can be sanctioned by the United States."

Trump has argued that Tehran's long-range missile program should be viewed as part and parcel of a nuclear weapons program, even though it is not currently covered under the agreement.

Under an agreement signed under President Barack Obama, certain Iranian nuclear activities were restricted for periods between 10 to 25 years, and more intrusive, permanent monitoring was established. It also forbid Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons in the future. In exchange, Iran was relieved of economic sanctions.

Trump has also criticized the deal for failing to rein in Iran's fueling of sectarian violence in places like Syria and Yemen, despite the deal's promise to contribute to "regional and international peace and security."

And Trump has slammed the so-called "sunset provisions" that allow certain restrictions on Iran's nuclear program to expire, rather than last indefinitely.

The decision to abandon the deal and reimpose sanctions had been telegraphed for months.

On Oct. 13, 2017, the administration announced that it would decline to re-certify the deal, as his administration had previously done two times.

Trump accused Iran of failing to live up to the "spirit" of the deal, and cited "multiple violations of the agreement." (However, we have previously found that Iran had largely complied with the deal, aside from some minor infractions that were rectified.)

Trump framed his action as a kept promise.

The specific campaign promise we have been tracking since Trump's inauguration is to renegotiate the Iran deal. Whether the United States' exit from the deal advances the goal of a renegotiated agreement or amounts to a setback is not clear-cut.

In his announcement, Trump did not say that negotiations are underway. He did suggest, however, that he is open to them.

"We will be working with our allies to find a real, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat," Trump said. In the announcement, he specifically mentioned several areas in which he wants a stronger agreement: curbs on Iran's ballistic missile program, its terrorist activities, and its "menacing activities" across the Middle East.

Trump added, "Iran's leaders will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal. They refuse, and that's fine. I'd probably say the same thing if I was in their position. But the fact is, they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people. When they do, I am ready, willing, and able."

That said, it's not clear that either the United States' European allies or Iran would be open to further negotiations. European leaders lobbied Trump in a last-ditch attempt to keep the United States in the deal, and after the decision was made public, they expressed regret about it. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders indicated that they would keep talking to European, Russian and Chinese leaders but reserved the right to restart banned nuclear activities within a few weeks in the absence of significant progress.

Trump's decision to abandon the deal isn't the same thing as renegotiating it. But the U.S. exit could be a precursor to negotiating a new agreement. Nevertheless, in the immediate aftermath of Trump's announcement, the odds of a renegotiation seemed slim. Until we learn more about the consequences of Trump's decision, we're keeping the rating for this promise at In the Works.

Our Sources

John Kruzel
By John Kruzel October 13, 2017

Trump decertifies deal, urges Congress to bolster Iran restraints

President Donald Trump formally disavowed the Iran nuclear deal and pressed lawmakers to impose harsh new restraints on the Islamic Republic.

Trump stopped short of withdrawing from the Obama-era deal, under which Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief. Instead, the Trump administration intends to work with Congress and U.S. allies to "address the deal's many serious flaws," he said.

Some experts saw this step as an opening move toward renegotiating the deal, though they doubted a new agreement would emerge between the United States, Iran and other world powers who brokered the 2015 pact.

"In my view, I think that you can count this as movement," said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University. "I don't think it will actually result in a renegotiated agreement, so it is hardly progress toward it."

Others believe the meaning behind Trump's new posture on Iran is too vague to pin down with any certainty.

Decertification of the deal

One of the headlines from Trump's speech is that he would decertify the Iran accord. That does not mean he will cancel it.

By law, the Trump administration must report on the deal to Congress every 90 days, including the status of Iran's compliance, and whether it's within U.S. national security interest to continue sanctions relief.

With the administration's October deadline looming, Trump announced Oct. 13 he would decline to certify the deal, as his administration had previously done two times. Trump accused Iran of failing to live up to the "spirit" of the deal, and cited "multiple violations of the agreement." (We previously found that Iran had largely complied with the deal, aside from some minor infractions that were quickly rectified.)

"Based on the factual record I have put forward, I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification," Trump said. "We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakout."

Decertifying opens the door for Congress to quickly reimpose sanctions. If Congress takes that step, experts said, it would effectively end the deal.

Legislative changes

Instead of withdrawing from the deal, Trump said he would pursue ways to fix its shortcomings.

Trump is seeking legislation that amends the law that requires congressional review of the deal to include new "trigger points," which if Iran reached, would automatically reimpose sanctions.

Trump said these triggers would aim to strengthen enforcement of the current deal, and would also apply separately to Iran's ballistic missile program. He also expressed support for provisions that would effectively eliminate the nuclear deal's expiration date, and threatened to walk away from the deal if Congress and U.S. allies failed to reach a satisfactory solution.

"I support these initiatives. However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution, working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated," Trump said. "It is under continuous review, and our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time."

Does this amount to a 'renegotiation'?

So is the administration's new tack the hard opening line of a negotiation?

"It's not clear whether the president wants to renegotiate the deal, which he is hearing from his advisers is not realistic, or whether he wants to delegitimize it to signal he is 'tough' on Iran," said Lisa Koch, assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Or he could be hoping to bring about the deal's slow collapse in a way that allows him to distance himself from the blame."

Trump's new posture toward Iran generates as many questions as it does answers. Time will tell whether the administration's harder line, as well as its pursuit of legislative modifications, will reopen negotiations or effectively alter terms of the deal.

What's certain is Trump's decertification of the deal and legislative push moves this promise from what was essentially static, into a more fluid situation.

So we're changing this rating to In the Works.

Our Sources

President Donald Trump speech, Oct. 13, 2017

PolitiFact, "Is Iran complying with the nuclear deal? For the most part, yes," June 14, 2017

Email interview with Richard Nephew, senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University, Oct. 13, 2017

Email interview with Lisa Koch, assistant professor of Government, Claremont McKenna College, Oct. 13, 2017

Email interview with Daryl Kimball, executive director Arms Control Association, Oct. 13, 2017

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 20, 2017

Mixed messages on Iran, but tangible moves toward reversal haven't happened yet

The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the way forward on the Iran nuclear agreement -- a deal that Donald Trump harshly criticized on the campaign trail.

The flurry of activity on the Iran agreement began in mid April with the release of a letter written by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The April 18 letter provided an assessment -- one required every 90 days -- of whether Iran was holding up its end of the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement was signed in 2015 by Iran, the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with assistance from the European Union.

Previous iterations of the 90-day letter had been signed during the Obama administration, but this marked the first time that the Trump administration had issued such a document.

The business end of the letter was this: "This letter certifies that the conditions of Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, including as amended by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-17), enacted May 22, 2015, are met as of April 18, 2017."

Translation: Iran hasn't done anything to breach the agreement. If the United States had found violations by Iran, it would have had options for retaliating, such as by re-imposing sanctions that had been lifted. But it couldn't find any violations.

Such a conclusion offered nothing concrete to advance Trump's campaign promise that he would renegotiate the deal. If anything, it affirmed that the agreement would stay put, at least for now.

Terrorism concerns

That said, the letter -- along with comments by Tillerson at an April 19 press availability -- effectively ratcheted up the rhetoric against Iran in ways that fit with Trump's overall skepticism of a diplomatic path forward with Iran.

In the preface to the announcement of Tillerson's letter to Ryan, the State Department wrote that Tillerson was raising concerns "about Iran's role as a state sponsor of terrorism."

The letter to Ryan went on to say that the president had ordered a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Iran agreement "that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States."

During his appearance with reporters, Tillerson read a statement that addressed "Iran's alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time."

While negotiators of the nuclear deal had set aside terrorism and related issues from the agreement, Tillerson offered a litany of U.S. concerns about Iran's actions beyond nuclear policy.

Tillerson said that Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria; has sought to destabilize Iraq and Israel; has backed the Houthi rebels in Yemen and in so doing has threatened Saudi Arabia's southern border; has interfered with U.S. naval vessels; has supported cyber and terrorist attacks; and has arbitrarily detained foreigners on false charges.

In addition to this tough words on non-nuclear issues, Tillerson also sharpened his rhetoric against the nuclear deal itself, saying it "fails to achieve of the objective of a non-nuclear Iran."

"It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state," he told journalists. "This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran."

Finally, during a joint appearance with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on April 20, Trump said, "Iran has not lived up to the spirit of the agreement and they have to do that -- they have to do that. So, we will see what happens."

Assessing the promise

So what does this mean for Trump's promise to renegotiate the nuclear agreement?

The rhetoric suggests the administration still wants to follow through. But neither the letter to Ryan nor Tillerson's comments constitutes concrete steps in that direction.

The strongest piece of evidence of moving towards renegotiation is the announcement of the inter-agency review. However, that news by itself is not necessarily a big deal, experts said.

"Policy reviews are a given -- they happen every time there's a turnover" in the White House, said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University. "They may produce significant results, but as of now, this team is saying that this deal is going to remain as is, and in effect."

Nephew said it's hard to argue that any administration, even a Democratic one, wouldn't have undertaken a similar review.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School, agreed.

"All Tillerson said was that they would review the application of sanctions, not that they were coming up with renegotiation ideas," Bunn said.

And Ariane M. Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said that there's a broad consensus among those familiar with the deal that no single component of the deal can be renegotiated, short of the entire deal being renegotiated.

"Of course, Iran will not come to the table to negotiate a deal if the U.S. is already contemplating not upholding its end of the bargain under the existing deal," she said. "So, Trump isn't getting closer to negotiating a totally different deal."

We will re-evaluate this promise periodically, but for now, we see a heightening of rhetoric against Iran -- much of it on issues, such as terrorism, that are formally separate from the agreement itself -- yet an absence of concrete steps to fast-track renegotiation efforts.

Rather, the most tangible effect of the administration's recent activity is to officially confirm that Iran has been abiding by its end of the deal -- a position that would make the fulfillment of Trump's promise harder, not easier. So we're keeping this promise at Stalled.

Our Sources

Rex Tillerson, letter to Paul Ryan, April 18, 2017

Rex Tillerson, remarks at a press availability, April 19, 2017

NBC News, "Trump Administration Orders Review of Iran Nuclear Deal Sanctions: Tillerson," April 19, 2017

Reuters, "U.S. says Iran complies with nuke deal but orders review on lifting sanctions," April 19, 2017

Email interview with Richard Nephew, senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University, April 19, 2017

Email interview with Matthew Bunn, nuclear specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School, April 19, 2017

Email interview with Ariane M. Tabatabai, visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, April 20, 2017

Sarah Waychoff
By Sarah Waychoff April 6, 2017

Trump repeats rhetorical support, but no concrete evidence yet

As a candidate, President Donald Trump promised that he would renegotiate the nuclear agreement between Iran and five world powers, including the United States.

Since Trump's promise was declared, he has remained fairly quiet on the matter.

First, some background.

In 2015, the Obama administration finalized an international agreement to limit Iran's nuclear capability. Sometimes called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the agreement included Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

The deal stipulated that Iran commit to not pursue nuclear weapons, with an international inspection regime to verify that pledge. As long as Iran abided by the terms of the agreement, the United States and other countries agreed to lift sanctions.

The agreement was enacted, but most Republicans criticized the deal as overly lenient.

So far, however, nuclear-policy experts see little overt action to upend the agreement.

"I think it is absolutely not the case that he's renegotiated the deal nor even really indicated an intention to," said Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar on global energy policy at Columbia University. "His own party in Congress is focused on dealing with regional issues, and Chris Ford, his nonproliferation person, essentially said the JCPOA will stand."

Ford, the National Security Council's senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation, indicated that position in late March.

Nephew said it's certainly possible that the policy Ford articulated could be reversed.

Indeed, on April 5, during a joint appearance with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Trump said, "The Iran deal made by the previous administration is one of the worst deals I have ever witnessed, and I've witnessed some beauties. It's one of the worst deals I've ever witnessed. It should never have been made. It was totally one-sided against the United States, and frankly, against much of the Middle East. …  I will do what I have to do with respect to the Iran deal."

It's possible that negotiations to reverse the deal are under way out of the public eye, and if they come to fruition, we'll revise our ruling. For now, though, despite Trump's continued rhetorical support for reversing the deal, there is no concrete evidence of a change in policy. We rate the promise Stalled.

Our Sources

CQ, President Donald Trump and Jordan King Abdullah II Hold Joint News Conference, April 5, 2017

Obama White House, Implementation Day, January 16, 2016

CNN transcript, An Iran Nuclear Deal Opposition Rally, September 9, 2015

PolitiFact, PolitiFact Sheet: 6 things to know about the Iran nuclear deal, September 8, 2015

CNN,  'Iran nuclear deal full of complex issues and moving parts,' July 14, 2015

U.S. Department of State, Iran Sanctions, July 14, 2015

Time, Donald Trump's Speech to AIPAC, March 21, 2016

U.S. Department of Treasury, Treasury Sanctions Supporters of Iran's Ballistic Missile Program and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, February 3, 2017

Reuters, "Trump administration to review goal of world without nuclear weapons: aide," March 21, 2017

Email interview with Richard Nephew, Columbia University, April 5, 2017

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