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Trump’s not killing the Iran deal — yet

But this could be the last time he extends it.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has decided to extend the Iran nuclear deal once more — but it may be the last time he does it.

The president announced Friday that he wouldn’t reimpose economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, a move that would have effectively killed the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal in Tehran in 2015 and isolated the US from allies around the world.

Trump is legally required to decide every 120 days whether or not he’ll put the sanctions back into effect. In his statement Friday, the president said he’d reimpose the measures next time the deadline comes around unless European allies put stricter limitations on what Iran is allowed to do under the pact.

“Today I am waiving the application of certain nuclear sanctions, but only in order to secure our European allies’ agreement to fix the terrible flaws of the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said in a statement. “This is a last chance.”

According to senior administration officials, Trump wants to establish new sanctions on Iran tied to the way it handles its ballistic missile program, inspections of its nuclear sites by international monitors, and any expansion of the Iran’s nuclear program that causes the country to come within a year of “nuclear breakout,” the amount of time it would take to produce enough fuel for a single nuclear weapon.

Trump also said he expects Congress to craft new legislation that would “deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon — not just for ten years, but forever.”

The Trump administration also announced new sanctions against 14 Iranian nationals and organizations for behavior unrelated to the country’s nuclear program. Those measures are being imposed on Iran for its government’s human rights abuses and censorship, mainly tied to widespread national protests in Iran in recent weeks.

The most high-profile sanction targets Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the administrative head of Iran’s judiciary. “Designations today will go to the top of the regime and send a strong message that the US is not going to tolerate their continued violations of the rights of their citizens,” a senior administration official said.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Friday that Trump’s comments were “desperate attempts to undermine a solid multilateral agreement” and that the deal was “not renegotiable.”

Trump’s decision to extend the deal is in some ways a surprising move — late last year he declared the deal wasn’t in the national security interests of the US. It represents a tentative win for Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other top aides, who have spent months lobbying the president to preserve the deal. And it prevents, at least for now, what could have been a nasty fight with America’s closest allies, who believe the deal is working and have made clear that the US would stand alone if Trump pulled out of it.

The question is whether or not Trump is actually willing to kill the pact four months from now if the US and Europeans can’t strike a deal.

For a moment it looked like Trump might pull out of the deal

At issue were sanctions the US was placing on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal, which crippled Iran’s economy by freezing Iran’s central bank out of the international financial system. They also punished foreign countries’ companies and banks for doing business with Iran by forcing them to choose between doing business with the US or Iran.

Reimposing those sanctions would have effectively taken the US out of the nuclear deal, and Iran could then take that as a green light to resume its nuclear activities banned by the agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said last spring that Iran is “completely ready” to restart its nuclear program if the US didn’t hold up its end of the deal.

Trump has declined to reimpose these sanctions before, but there were serious concerns among lawmakers from both parties that he was prepared to put them back in place this time around.

That’s in part because Iran has been rocked by nationwide protests in recent weeks that began in response to difficult economic conditions and have since morphed into a broader critique of the Iranian political system. The protests have begun to die down, but some analysts had wondered if Trump would capitalize on the Iranian government’s vulnerability by torpedoing the deal and trying to extract bigger concessions from Tehran on its nuclear program.

But Trump is choosing a different path. He’s leaving the pact in place for now, and is instead creating a new deadline for working with Europe to create a deal that’s tougher on Iran. He’s also choosing to work around the nuclear sanctions and instead unveiling new, smaller sanctions that penalize Iran for activities that have nothing to do with its nuclear activities.

Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster all recommended that Trump stay in the deal, and it looks like they’ve won him over, at least for now. That’s not what you’d have expected based on the way Trump has consistently talked about the deal.

Trump has talked tough about the Iran deal but carried a small stick

Since his days on the campaign trail, Trump has railed against the Iran deal as a terrible agreement and promised to either change it to make it more restrictive on Iran or scrap it altogether.

But his record during his first year in office has been considerably less aggressive than his rhetoric. He has not persuaded any of the US’s partners in the deal — the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia — that the pact should be renegotiated. And he hasn’t taken any concrete steps to torpedo the deal.

Instead, the only thing he’s done is “decertify” the deal during a speech in October. It was a strange, wonky maneuver — it didn’t undo the US’s commitment to the pact, but it gave Congress a 60-day opportunity to reimpose sanctions through an expedited legislative process. Republican lawmakers made no efforts to do that, because they generally believe it is riskier to end the deal than to try to fix it. So Congress punted it back to Trump.

These days, Trump faces more pressure from Iran hawks to either work around the deal or find a way to make it a lot tougher on Iran than to simply obliterate it by reimposing sanctions.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a critic of the Iran deal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that Trump is better off, strategically speaking, sanctioning Iran for activities outside of its nuclear program, like human rights abuses and its repression of free speech at the protests. “It’s high time that Washington develop an Iran policy that is less about uranium and more about Iranians,” he told me in an interview before the White House’s announcement Friday.

Michael Doran, a former senior director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, is an outspoken critic of the Iran deal, but on Tuesday he argued in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that fixing the deal would be much smarter than simply axing it.

“[Trump] and Congress could eliminate the nuclear deal’s sunset clauses — its most dangerous provisions — by making restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program permanent in US law and requiring more robust inspections,” he wrote.

The GOP generally shares that view. Instead of searching for ways to abandon the Iran deal entirely, Republican lawmakers are looking to pass legislation in Congress that would change the deal so that it would put a tighter leash on Iran’s nuclear program. The new measures could include, for example, the threat of future sanctions to penalize Iran for potentially expanding its nuclear program when some of its obligations under the deal expire.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), an Iran hawk who advises the White House on foreign policy matters and is involved in putting together the legislation, wants those new restrictions on Iran to be very, very onerous. If his view prevails, Democrats and many experts believe that the new legislation would undercut core commitments the US made when the deal was signed, and could ultimately kill the agreement.

So lawmakers are tasked with finding a way to make the legislation — which will require bipartisan support — change the US’s power in the deal to Trump’s liking, but without actually violating its terms as agreed to in the past. (If that sounds very difficult or maybe even impossible, that’s because it probably is.)

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Ben Cardin (D-MD), the top Democrat on the panel, met with McMaster on Thursday to discuss the legislation. Micah Johnson, a spokesperson for Corker, told me the senator thinks the conversations with the White House have been “productive.”

Check back again 120 days from now.

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