US Allies Frustrated by Trump on Iran Nuclear Agreement

US Allies Frustrated by Trump on Iran Nuclear AgreementUS Allies Frustrated by Trump on Iran Nuclear Agreement

US allies campaigning hard in the halls of the US Congress to preserve the Iran nuclear deal are finding the process frustrating and confounding.

In recent talks with CNN, some foreign diplomats and officials who back the deal say that at the highest levels, the White House has seemed at times so wedded to its talking points on Iran that it does not listen, with US President Donald Trump stuck in "transmit rather than receive mode".

The US State Department, they say, is not really part of the conversation.

"The ball really is with congress right now," so that is where diplomats have been focused, said one senior official, but even there, things are not going all that well.

Some say animosity between Republicans and Democrats has made their work uncomfortable. And while all the officials CNN spoke to said lawmakers are avid for input from allies, some worry that congress' attempts to fix the deal will spin out of control and ultimately drag the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action down with it.

US law gives congress some oversight of the Iran deal, allowing it to slap sanctions on Tehran if lawmakers do not think it is complying. But the White House wants congress to toughen its oversight by amending a law called INARA, so that the US can potentially sanction Iran for activities that were never part of the nuclear deal in the first place.

The alternative, Trump has threatened, is that he will walk away from the deal. He wants to please US allies in the Middle East who want Trump to fight their war against Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are facing tremendous pressures domestically and would love to have a regional conflict embroiling the US and Iran to help deflect attention from their domestic woes.

Some European diplomats, however, say the danger of amending the law is that Iran will see this as a violation of the international agreement.

"There are lots of well-intentioned people on both sides in congress," said one European diplomat. "Our worry is, once you start tweaking INARA, you could end up essentially renegotiating the deal unilaterally, and then you lose control of it if Iran ultimately walks away."

Diplomats whose countries back the deal estimate that their teams have held dozens of meeting on Capitol Hill in the past few months. In the last two weeks, senior European officials, including EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have also descended on the Hill.

One diplomat from a country that supports the deal said the point is not to lobby congress but to say, "Here's why we feel the way we do." It's not about banging down doors, this diplomat said, but about working with congress.

Israeli and Persian Gulf Arab officials quietly make their case in meetings with US lawmakers and administration officials. At lower levels, Washington-based diplomats have pressed the issue on the Hill and at the White House for months in an effort to influence whether the deal should change, and to what degree.


Israel says the deal should be "fixed or nixed", while some Persian Gulf Arab countries say it should be toughened and used to pressure Iran. Countries that support it, on the other hand, say trying to reopen the international pact would unravel it, undermining global security. The deal, reached in July 2015, was negotiated by Iran, Russia, China, the US, France, Germany, the UK and the European Union.

Diplomats on all sides of the deal have focused their tug-of-war campaign on Capitol Hill since October. That is when Trump—hostile to the nuclear deal but stymied by declarations that Iran is complying from the United Nations, US allies and even his own national security staff—punted the issue to congress.

Before Trump handed it off to congress, some supporters of the deal say, they were having a tough time getting their message across to the White House.

When British Prime Minister Theresa May met Trump in New York in September, the first issue she raised was the nuclear deal, and she came away with the sense that he was not really listening, according to someone present who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting.

That person said Trump kept interjecting with simple talking points such as "It's the worst deal ever" without explaining his reasons or addressing the substance, while May wanted to focus on the details of the deal, stress that Iran was in compliance and convey that the UK would work with the US to ratchet up pressure on Iran for its other regional activities. In contrast, lawmakers from both parties are reaching out to engage on the substance, foreign diplomats said. Those involved with amending INARA are telling diplomats from allied countries that their goal is to keep the US compliant with the nuclear deal.


Add new comment

Read our comment policy before posting your viewpoints