Tillerson calls Iran deal a failure

Still, he certifies Tehran abiding

Posted: April 20, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks Wednesday at the U.S.-Saudi Arabia CEO Summit in Washington. Earlier, Tillerson said the Iran nuclear treaty only delays Iran’s goal of becoming a nuclear state.

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared the Iran nuclear deal a failure on Wednesday but left open the possibility the Trump administration will uphold it nonetheless.

The top American diplomat sought to reinforce the notion that the U.S. is aggressively countering Iran's destabilizing behavior throughout the Middle East, even though President Donald Trump so far has not pulled out of the deal. Tillerson spoke a day after certifying to Congress that Iran is complying with its obligations under the 2015 deal, a finding required by law every 90 days for Tehran to continue receiving relief from nuclear sanctions.

The certification was delivered just 90 minutes before a midnight Eastern time deadline and with a headline in a news release announcing "Iran Continues to Sponsor Terrorism."

In the letter sent late Tuesday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that made the certification, Tillerson said the administration has undertaken a full review of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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"Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods," Tillerson wrote. He said the National Security Council-led interagency review of the agreement will evaluate whether it "is vital to the national security interests of the United States."

Despite the sanctions relief, Iran remains on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism for its support of anti-Israel groups and is still subject to non-nuclear sanctions, including for human-rights abuses and for its backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran," Tillerson said Wednesday, using the initials of the 2015 nuclear deal's name. "It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state."

He said the deal, brokered by former President Barack Obama's administration along with other world powers, represented the "same failed approach" the U.S. has taken to North Korea. As with North Korea, Tillerson said, the Trump administration was unwilling to be patient with Iran, ticking through a list of countries where he said Iran was supporting terrorism and violence.

Tillerson criticized Iran for its hostility toward Israel, its sponsorship of Houthi rebels in Yemen, its backing of Assad, the harassment of U.S. naval vessels plying the Persian Gulf, and cyberattacks against the United States and its allies in the Gulf.

"Iran spends its treasure and time disrupting peace," he said.

"The evidence is clear -- Iran's provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world," Tillerson said. He said one of the mistakes of the deal was how it "completely ignored" other threats posed by Iran.

The switch from the certification to criticism left Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had widely excoriated the agreement and voted against its implementation, with mixed responses.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who led congressional opposition to the Iran deal, said in a statement that the administration's "certification is shaky, and it doesn't mean that the intentions behind Iran's nuclear program are benign."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration appeared to be preparing a tougher line against Iran.

"Secretary Tillerson made clear that regardless of Iran's technical compliance with the nuclear deal, the administration is under no illusion about the continued threat from Tehran and is prepared to work closely with Congress to push back," Corker said Wednesday in a statement.

Proponents of the deal have long acknowledged it doesn't address concerns about Iran's non-nuclear behavior, such as its ballistic missile program or support for the Houthis. Obama and others argued that it was narrowly tailored to take the most dangerous prospect -- a nuclear-armed Iran -- off the table.

The deal's critics, though, say it fails to achieve even that goal because key restrictions on Iran's nuclear development end after a decade or more. With some of those critics now in office, Tillerson's comments Wednesday marked the first time that position has been echoed by the U.S. government.

Opponents of the agreement have called for renegotiating the accord with the goal of making permanent its 15-year moratorium on uranium enrichment close to the level needed to make a bomb. But reimposing sanctions that were explicitly tied to Iran's nuclear program -- as Tillerson suggested in his announcement -- would face particular opposition from European allies and give the government in Tehran grounds to walk away from the accord.

Competing views on deal

Tillerson's statement before cameras at the State Department reflected the competing forces pulling at the Trump administration as it develops its policy toward Iran.

Trump as a candidate vowed to discard or renegotiate the pact, and shortly after taking office his administration put Tehran "on notice" that what the U.S. regards as troublesome behavior would no longer be tolerated. But neither Iran nor the other world powers that negotiated the agreement have any interest in reopening the deal, and U.S. companies stand to lose billions if the deal is scuttled.

Still, since taking office, Trump has stopped promising he'll gut the deal. Tillerson said that decision will be made as part of a governmentwide review of Iran policy currently underway.

The Trump administration has given itself 90 days to complete its review of the deal but will need to make a series of decisions in coming weeks about whether to continue its support of the deal, which also was brokered with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Those governments, along with representatives of the United States and Iran, will meet next week in Vienna to review the pact's progress.

Trump faces a mid-May deadline, as imposed by Congress, to decide whether to continue the suspension of sanctions.

With Iran getting most of its benefits upfront, even critics of the agreement have said the United States gains little by breaking the deal now. Iran has complained that sanctions relief never gave it the economic boost it craved, and it has blamed the United States for not doing enough to allow U.S. businesses and banks to set up shop in Iran.

Analysts and former government officials said it was unlikely the Trump administration would renounce the Iran agreement.

"I'm glad this deal has held up to this point, and I hope it continues to hold up," said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state who was deeply involved in negotiating terms of the deal during the Obama administration.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was involved in Iran policy under Obama, said it was "pretty much a foregone conclusion" that Trump would keep the agreement in place.

Information for this article was contributed by Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee of The Associated Press; by Nick Wadhams and Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News; by Gardiner Harris of The New York Times; and by Carol Morello of The Washington Post.

A Section on 04/20/2017