Now that it has quit the Iran nuclear deal and angered its European allies, the Trump administration is ready to start talking about Plan B.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will deliver a speech Monday at the Heritage Foundation that lays out a “comprehensive strategy” for what the United States, European countries and others can do to rein in Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear activities, officials said.
The speech will come nearly two weeks after President Donald Trump announced that the United States was quitting the Iran deal. How European leaders react to it will offer a measure of the strength of U.S.-European ties, which have been badly strained in the Trump era.
Brian Hook, a senior adviser to Pompeo, said the Trump administration views the abandonment of the nuclear deal as an “opportunity,” not a self-inflicted wound, as other world leaders have suggested.
“We need a new framework that’s going to address the totality of Iran’s threats,” Hook told reporters in a conference call Friday. “We see an opportunity to counter and address Iran’s nuclear and proliferation threats and to create a better nonproliferation and deterrence architecture for Iran and the region.”
Hook declined to share details ahead of Pompeo’s speech, but he promised it is aimed at achieving a “better deal” than the 2015 nuclear deal, which was negotiated by the Barack Obama administration.
The deal gave Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program. Aside from the U.S. and Iran, the deal involved Germany, Britain, France, China and Russia. International inspectors say Iran has been upholding its end of the agreement.
But Trump insists the deal was too narrow and that, instead of focusing only on nuclear issues, it should have dealt with Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its aggressive military activities in the Middle East. Trump also criticized the fact that some provisions in the agreement expire starting in the next decade.
The U.S. president announced May 8 that, in quitting the deal, he will reimpose economic sanctions on Iran and on companies in other countries that do business with the Islamist-led state.
European leaders have been talking to Iran about how to salvage the deal sans the U.S. It’s a challenge for European countries because staying in the deal could expose their companies to U.S. sanctions, but they are mulling ways to block U.S. penalties on their firms.
Russia and China have also expressed unhappiness over Trump’s decision, and there is a possibility they will try to fill the political and diplomatic vacuum left by the U.S. and Europe, even at the risk of facing U.S. sanctions.
Some analysts say that so long as Trump doesn’t enforce the newly reimposed sanctions — holding off on penalizing any companies, for instance — there may be room for the other countries in the deal to devise a new agreement that satisfies Trump’s concerns.
But given how many years and compromises it took to reach the original deal, the odds are low that Iran would agree to a new round of talks that go well beyond its nuclear program.
It’s also not clear why the Trump administration believes it can muster a grand coalition to pressure Iran into talking. The U.S. president has shaken Europe’s trust by walking away from several multilateral agreements, including the Paris climate change deal.
But Hook said the United States and its European allies, at least, agree on far more areas than they disagree on. On areas of concern such as Iran’s missiles, its human rights record, and the need for stronger inspections of its nuclear program, the U.S. and its allies agree that more can be done, Hook said.
But he avoided giving a time frame for how long the administration expects the discussions to last.
In the hours after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, State Department officials said they had been so focused on talking to U.S. allies about ways to save or supplement the agreement that they had not discussed a “Plan B” for what happens if Trump simply quit. The remarks were widely interpreted to mean the administration had no back up plan.
But on Friday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert downplayed those earlier comments.
“The U.S. engaged in robust inter-agency contingency planning in case the president decided to leave the deal,” Nauert said.
The State Department officials also said the issue of whether to keep or get rid of the expiration dates on some provisions — the so-called sunsets — was a major sticking point between the U.S. and France, Britain and Germany. Eliminating the sunsets would have been an alteration of the original agreement, and Iran was not likely to play along.
European leaders have said in the past they were willing to discuss devising new agreements that deal with non-nuclear issues in relation to Iran, but they insisted that the nuclear deal must remain intact.
Hook, however, mentioned the sunset clauses as an area where there had been progress made in the talks between U.S. and European officials.
Asked why Iran would bother to sit down again with the United States, Hook pointed to economically fueled protests in the country as reasons that the Islamist regime in Tehran should keep talking.
The reimposition of the U.S. economic sanctions will heap more stress on the Iranian government and “is part of our diplomatic strategy to try to achieve a better security architecture,” Hook said.