Trump Is Expected to Stop Short of Reimposing Strict Sanctions on Iran
WASHINGTON — President Trump has again stopped short of reimposing draconian sanctions on Iran that could break up its nuclear deal with world powers, two people briefed on his decision said on Thursday, but he is expected to give Congress and European allies a deadline to improve the deal or the United States will pull out of it.
He also approved targeted sanctions against several Iranian government officials for corruption and human rights abuses, some of it related to the antigovernment protests that have convulsed Iranian cities this month, these people said.
Mr. Trump’s action, which the White House will announce on Friday, is the third time he has given a reprieve to the agreement brokered by President Barack Obama, despite having labeled it “the worst deal ever” and threatening repeatedly to rip it up.
His reluctance to preserve the agreement deepened in recent weeks after the protests, in which at least 21 people have died and thousands have been jailed. But his senior aides again persuaded him not to dissolve it, as did European allies, who said Iran was still abiding by the terms of the deal and that breaching it would play into the hands of hard liners in the country.
The White House is expected to play up the sanctions against Iranian officials as a symbol of Mr. Trump’s displeasure with the Islamic Republic’s government — and solidarity with those who are rallying against it.
Several officials said they expected Mr. Trump to warn that he would not waive the sanctions again unless Congress agreed on legislation to tighten the nuclear deal. He is also expected to demand that European leaders fall in line — something that seems even less likely after the political unrest in Iran.
Still, Mr. Trump’s expected action is most important for what he will not do: reinstate sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil exports, which were lifted as an inducement to Tehran for constraining its nuclear program. That would have almost certainly unraveled the agreement — and it may yet, since Mr. Trump has warned he will dismantle the deal if he cannot improve it.
Mr. Trump’s decision came after a Thursday meeting with his national security team on a turbulent day, during which he made a vulgar reference to immigrants in a meeting with senators and told The Wall Street Journal, “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.”
Starting on Friday, Mr. Trump faces a series of deadlines related to the nuclear deal and sanctions that were waived as a result of it. The first of those deadlines — for extending or terminating the waiver for the central bank and oil sanctions — is by the far the most significant.
In October, Mr. Trump refused to certify the agreement — a decision he is expected to reaffirm next week. At the time, the president warned that he would take further action to nullify the deal if Congress and the allies did not act.
“In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies,” he said over the fall, “then the agreement will be terminated.”
Republicans in the Senate have drafted legislation that would amend the deal by eliminating its “sunset provisions,” under which Iran is allowed to resume activities like enriching uranium. But they have so far been unable to bridge gaps with the Democratic caucus.
There is also no evidence that the Europeans have the appetite to reopen the deal. On Thursday, hours before Mr. Trump made his decision, European foreign ministers met in Brussels with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, ostensibly to press Tehran about its destabilizing activities in the region, which are putting the nuclear deal at risk.
But to some in Washington, the meeting amounted to a show of unity between Europe and Iran — and of defiance toward the United States. There were images of a smiling Mr. Zarif, seated among smiling European officials, followed by a parade of statements in favor of the deal.
“I don’t think anybody has so far produced a better alternative,” said the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. “The Iran nuclear deal makes the world safer. European partners were unanimous today in our determination to preserve the deal and tackle Iran’s disruptive behavior.”
The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said, “The deal is working — it is delivering on its main goal which means keeping the Iranian nuclear program in check and under close surveillance.”
In a phone call, President Emmanuel Macron of France also urged Mr. Trump not to scrap the deal. Mr. Macron “reaffirmed France’s determination to see the agreement strictly enforced and the importance for all of its signatories to abide by it,” his office said in a statement.
Privately, some White House officials complained about the phone call with Mr. Macron, which they said could have provoked Mr. Trump. Others said the diplomatic meeting in Brussels was similarly ill conceived, and they expressed frustration that the legislative efforts in Congress were not progressing quickly enough.
“Legislative gimmicks that don’t permanently fix the Iran nuclear deal under U.S. law, regardless of which party controls the White House, and continued European photo-ops with Javad Zarif are like waiving a red flag in front of an angry bull,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“It could lead Trump to kill the deal, now or soon,” he said.