Tillerson's New Plan to Save Nuclear Pact

Tillerson's New Plan to Save Nuclear PactTillerson's New Plan to Save Nuclear Pact

As US President Donald Trump considers whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is working behind the scenes with Congress to head off the possibility of an international crisis ahead of the agreement's looming Oct. 15 certification deadline, several US officials and western diplomats told CNN.

Tillerson and congressional lawmakers are spearheading efforts to amend US legislation regarding Iran to shift focus away from the nuclear issue, a move that could allow the US to stay in the multilateral nuclear deal forged in 2015 and also push back against Iran's other activities, officials and diplomats said.

"Tillerson has said the problem with the JCPOA is not the JCPOA," one senior administration official said, using the abbreviation for the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

"It's the legislation," the official said. "Every 90 days, the president must certify and it creates a political crisis. If the administration could put the nuclear deal in a corner, everyone could happily get back to work on dealing with everything else that is a problem with Iran."

On the surface, a plan to keep the US in the deal by taking a harder line on Iran through legislation seems to run counter to Trump's indications that he prefers scrapping the agreement.

But several US officials have told CNN that the White House has seemed open to the plan, suggesting that Trump could be changing his approach to the myriad of issues related to Iran.

Trump has long railed against the deal former president, Barack Obama, struck with Iran to curb its nuclear work. During his first address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Trump labeled the deal "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into".

The Trump administration is wrapping up a months-long review of US policy toward Iran and Trump has hinted at a series of events that he favors leaving the deal despite a more cautious message from several congressional Republicans, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Tillerson floated the broad brushstrokes of his plan to foreign ministers whose countries are party to the deal—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran—last month in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

All the ministers had argued that the nuclear deal was designed to address issues solely related to Iran's nuclear program, according to several diplomats who attended the meeting.

By all accounts, Iran had lived up to its commitments under the agreement, and European leaders signaled they were not interested in expanding the scope of its implementation, they said.

***Working to Change Political Dynamic

"Tillerson believes the deal is politically unsustainable in the United States because the Obama administration, which negotiated the deal, was voted out of office," one official said.

"So he is working on a play to see if we can change the political dynamic in the US by changing the legislation."

Tillerson's strategy centers around trying to compartmentalize the Iran deal by amending the legislation.  

Instead of certifying that Iran is meeting its technical commitments under the nuclear deal, the administration would report to Congress regularly about broader Iranian behavior, such as support for resistance groups and its ballistic missile program and what the administration is doing to counter it.

This approach could allow the US to stay in the deal but help Trump avoid the political headache of having to recertify it every 90 days.

It might also keep the Europeans, who want to keep the deal, on board with administration efforts to fight alleged Iran's destabilizing activities in the region.

Western diplomats said they are talking with the Trump administration about deepening cooperation to push back against Iran's other activity, such as its ballistic missile program and its actions in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in New York after meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that Iran's increased influence in the region called for greater attention to Tehran outside the nuclear deal.

"More can be done and we are ready to it," another European diplomat said.

"Just because we want to keep the JCPOA doesn't mean we want to ignore the other concerns," one European diplomat said. "We can do this in parallel. We agree we should look at the global picture but we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater."


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