President Donald Trump is expected this week to extend relief from economic sanctions to Iran as part of the nuclear deal, citing progress in amending U.S. legislation that governs Washington's participation in the landmark accord, according to U.S. officials and others familiar with the administration's deliberations.
But Trump is likely to pair his decision to renew the concessions to Tehran with new, targeted sanctions on Iranian businesses and people, the six people briefed on the matter said. The restrictions could hit some firms and individuals whose sanctions were scrapped under the 2015 nuclear agreement, a decision that could test Tehran's willingness to abide by its side of the bargain.
The individuals — two administration officials, two congressional aides and two outside experts who consult with the government — weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. They cautioned that Trump could still reject the recommendation from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster and that no final decision had been made. They said heated discussions were going on within the administration and with key Republican lawmakers.
The State Department and White House didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump must decide by Friday to extend the nuclear-related sanctions relief for Iran's central bank or re-impose the restrictions that President Barack Obama suspended two years ago.
The old, central bank sanctions largely cut Iran out of the international financial system, and are considered to be the most powerful of the penalties imposed by the U.S. during the Obama era, along with global penalties for buying Iranian oil. Some Iran hawks want to see both sets of restrictions return, but the six people with knowledge of Trump's plans say the president isn't planning to reinstate either at this point.
The individuals said Trump's top national security aides appear to have successfully made a different case to the president: Waiving anew for 120 days the nuclear-linked sanctions while simultaneously imposing new measures to punish Iran's ballistic missile testing, alleged terrorism support and human rights violations.
Such a balance could satisfy Trump's demand to raise pressure on Iran, while not embarking on a frontal assault on the most central trade-offs of the nuclear agreement. While the U.S. and other world powers rolled back economic restrictions on Tehran, the Iranians severely curtailed their enrichment of uranium and other nuclear activity. Trump has complained that many of the Iranian restrictions expire next decade and has vacillated between talk of toughening the deal and pulling the U.S. out entirely.
A senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday that Tillerson and Mattis would be meeting with Trump on the matter before an announcement Friday. Trump, Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence were scheduled to have lunch Wednesday at the White House after a formal Cabinet meeting.
The decision coincides with the administration's efforts to secure a face-saving fix from Congress on the requirement for Trump to address Iran's compliance every three months. In October, Trump decertified the nuclear deal under U.S. law, saying the sanctions relief was disproportionate to Iran's nuclear concessions, and describing the arrangement as contrary to America's national security interests.
Tillerson told The Associated Press in an interview last week that he and others were working with Congress on ways to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA, to resolve concerns Trump has with the deal. That will be coupled with diplomacy with European government on addressing Iran's missile testing and support for the Hezbollah militant movement, Shiite rebels in Yemen and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The president said he is either going to fix it or cancel it," Tillerson said of the overall deal. "We are in the process of trying to deliver on the promise he made to fix it."
On the INARA law, it's unlikely Congress could move fast enough to codify changes by Friday. So Tillerson and others are hoping to convince the president there's enough momentum to warrant another extension of sanctions relief and not jeopardizing the entire agreement. The goal would be for Congress to make the changes sometime before May when Trump is next required to address the sanctions.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Iran deal, one of Obama's signature foreign policy achievements, as the worst ever negotiated by the U.S. He has particularly bristled at having to give Iran a "thumbs up" every few months by acknowledging that it is meeting the requirements to invest in foreign banks, sell petroleum overseas, buy U.S. and European aircraft, and so forth.
Iran hawks in Congress and elsewhere worry the changes being discussed don't strengthen the nuclear deal enough.
One would automatically re-impose, or "snap back," suspended sanctions if Iran commits certain actions, possibly including things unrelated to its nuclear program. Currently, Congress must act for the sanctions to snap back.
Another proposal would require snapback if Iran refuses a request from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s atomic watchdog, to inspect a military site not currently being monitored. Iran hawks worry the IAEA, fearing a confrontation with Iran, won't even ask for such an inspection.
Other debates center on Iran's missile testing. Hardline Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz want sanctions back if Iran launches any ballistic missiles capable of targeting territory outside of Iran, such as Israel or Saudi Arabia, and not just an intercontinental missile.
Senate Democrats, generally more supportive of the nuclear deal, are pushing their own suggestions. One would let a simple House and Senate majority stop any effort to snap back sanctions, unless the president vetoes the block. While such a mechanism is unlikely to threaten Trump in the short term, some anti-deal Republicans fear it could be used against them under a future Democratic president.
President Donald Trump angrily accused Iran of violating the landmark 2015 international nuclear accord, blaming the Iranians for a litany of sinister behavior and hitting their main military wing with anti-terror penalties. But Trump, breaking his campaign pledge to rip up the agreement, did not pull the U.S. out or re-impose nuclear sanctions.
He still might, he was quick to add. For now, he's tossing the issue to Congress and the other nations in the accord, telling lawmakers to toughen the law that governs U.S. participation and calling on the other parties to fix a series of deficiencies. Those include the scheduled expiration of key restrictions under "sunset provisions" that begin to kick in in 2025, as well as the omission of provisions on ballistic missile testing and terrorism.
Without the fixes, Trump warned, he would likely pull the U.S. out of the deal — which he has called the worst in U.S. history — and slap previously lifted U.S. sanctions back into place. That would probably be a fatal blow for the pact between Iran and world powers.
"Our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time," Trump declared Friday in a carefully delivered speech read from a teleprompter in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House. He added later, speaking of Congress, "They may come back with something that's very satisfactory to me, and if they don't, within a very short period of time, I'll terminate the deal."
Under U.S. law, Trump faces a Sunday deadline to certify to Congress whether Iran is complying with the accord. That notification must take place every 90 days, a timetable that Trump detests. Since taking office, he has twice reluctantly certified that Iran is fulfilling its commitments.
On Friday, he said he would not do so again.
Trump alone cannot actually terminate the accord, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions regarding its nuclear program. But withdrawing the U.S. would render the deal virtually meaningless.
That would be risky, though, and could badly damage U.S. credibility in future international negotiations. The accord was struck after 18 months of negotiations between the Obama administration, Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union and then endorsed by a unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council.
Trump's main national security aides have all argued for staying in the deal. So have key allies in Europe who are leery of altering an accord that they believe has prevented Iran from assembling an arsenal of atomic weapons.
Overseas reaction to Friday's speech was swift.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would continue to stick to the nuclear deal and that the U.S. was isolating itself, "more lonely than ever," by condemning the accord.
Indeed, the leaders of Britain, Germany and France urged Trump in a joint statement not to do anything rash.
"We encourage the U.S. administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the U.S. and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the (deal), such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement," they said. Still, they added, "independent of the (deal) we need to make sure that our collective wider concerns are being addressed."
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump and said the U.S. president had created an opportunity to "fix this bad deal" and roll back Iran's aggression. Netanyahu has long warned that the accord failed to address Iran's support for militant groups who act against Israel.
Trump opened his speech by reciting a long list of grievances with Iran dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and American hostages in Tehran. He then noted terrorist attacks against Americans and American allies committed by Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah, and Iran's ongoing ballistic missile tests.
"We cannot and will not make this certification" that Iran is complying with the accord, he said. "We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran's nuclear breakout."
But "decertifying" the deal stops well short of pulling out and simply moves the issues over to Congress. Lawmakers now have 60 days to decide whether to put the accord's previous sanctions back into place, modify them or do nothing.
Republicans face a heavy lift in rallying GOP lawmakers and Democrats behind legislation that would make the accord more stringent and please Trump. Some GOP senators, like Marco Rubio of Florida, question whether the pact can be fixed.
Further complicating matters, a GOP lawmaker who will be at the center of what's sure to be a stormy debate is Bob Corker of Tennessee, who recently compared Trump's White House to "an adult day care center" and said the president could be setting the U.S. on a path toward World War III.
Ahead of Trump's speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration wants lawmakers to come up with legislation that would automatically re-impose sanctions that were lifted under the deal should Iran cross any one of numerous nuclear and non-nuclear "trigger points."
Those would include illicit atomic work or ballistic missile testing; support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and other groups that destabilize the region, or human rights abuses and cyber warfare, Tillerson said.
Also Friday, Trump said he was hitting Iran's Revolutionary Guard with sanctions for supporting terrorism. But the U.S. is not adding the Guard to the formal U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. That step would force the U.S. to take even further steps against the Guard that Tillerson says could be problematic.
AP writers Deb Riechmann and Richard Lardner contributed to this report.