Donald Trump extended nuclear sanctions waivers on Iran in time for a Friday deadline, but warned European signatories of the landmark 2015 accord, that he would not extend it again unless they took a harder line against Tehran’s weapons development.
While the US president reluctantly extended the life of the Obama-era deal in which Iran limited its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, the US administration announced new non-nuclear sanctions and said the president’s patience was running out over what he has called “the worst deal ever”.
“This is a last chance,” Mr Trump said on Friday, adding that he wanted an agreement with Europeans to fix the deal. “In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.”
Iran said it would not accept changes to the accord nor would it take action beyond its commitments, a reference to Mr Trump’s calls for sanctions relief be tied to a limit on its long-range ballistic missile program
Iran also said it would retaliate against the new US sanctions that affect a range of entities and individuals, including Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary.
Diplomats and officials have spent the past week in a flurry of visits to the White House as they tried to save the deal, but it is not clear whether Europeans will support the new effort. Mr Trump’s constant attacks have enfeebled the deal, enraged US allies and undermined his efforts to hold Tehran to account, say critics.
Russia, one of the accords signatories, described Mr Trump’s move as extremely unhelpful on Saturday while the UK insisted the Iran nuclear deal remained crucial.
“The UK has a clear position on the Iran nuclear deal: we regard it as a crucial agreement that makes the world a safer place by neutralising the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran,” the Foreign Office said.
A senior administration official said Mr Trump intended to work with European partners on “some kind of follow-on agreement that enshrines certain triggers”. This would include provisions to impose joint new sanctions on Iran should it come within a year of “nuclear breakout”, the official said.
Mr Trump said the supplemental deal would also include a provision to trigger sanctions if Iran tested long-range missiles or thwarted inspections and that it should have no expiry date.
European allies have floated ways to address Mr Trump’s concerns outside the parameters of the deal itself, and reminded the US that it cannot single-handedly change the multi-party accord.
A European diplomat said that although the administration was engaged with allies “it’s too soon to say there’s anything concrete”.
“The Trump administration faces a huge challenge in getting European allies to strengthen the [deal],” said Nile Gardiner at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. “While Britain may move to support the US on this, Germany and France are likely to be strongly opposed.”
Mr Trump, who has threatened to pull America out of the agreement, is frustrated lawmakers have failed to fix the deal since he first refused to “certify” it to Congress in October, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr Trump’s refusal in October to endorse the agreement to Congress gave lawmakers 60 days to introduce new legislation under expedited procedures, a window they did not take up. Mr Trump is frustrated by regular deadlines, not only to endorse the deal every 90 days but also to pass deal-related sanctions waivers that fall due every 120 and 180 days, and is tiring of giving extensions, say people familiar with discussions.
“There are warnings and threats to Congress and Europeans that if there’s not something from Congress by 120 days from now he’s not going to do this again,” said a person familiar with discussions before his announcement.
HR McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, has sought to craft a deal with lawmakers that might relieve Mr Trump of the need for regular certification.
Ben Cardin, minority leader for the Senate foreign relations committee whose co-operation would be essential to legislative action, met with his counterpart Bob Corker and General McMaster last week. But he will not support any effort that irks European allies or puts the US in violation of the deal.
Another senior administration official said changes the president wants from Congress include amending domestic legislation so Iran’s ballistic missile programme is subject to the same safeguards as its nuclear development.
Jarrett Blanc, former state department co-ordinator for Iran nuclear implementation during the Obama administration, said Mr Trump’s hawkish focus on the deal had backfired.
“What they’ve done since October has been a failure in its own terms,” he said. Constant uncertainty over the deal has hampered administration hopes to pressure Iran on other areas, such as its non-nuclear ballistic missile programme, support for Hizbollah militants and its human rights record.
New sanctions announced by the Treasury on Friday will target Iranian entities and individuals, including the head of the judiciary. The US has also lent support this year to anti-regime protesters, boosting their access to the internet and pressuring Tehran to remove censorship since demonstrations began late last year.
But Simon Gass, lead UK negotiator for the deal and former ambassador to Iran, said the Trump administration’s approach took the focus away from Tehran’s actions and enabled the Iranian government to blame external forces.
“To try to insert yourself into the middle by too overt and too activist an approach really plays into the hand of hardliners,” he said.
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