Iran unrest may give US nuclear deal advantage

Trump could use it to pressure divided Congress to back new sanctions legislation

Washington: A wave of protests against the Iranian government is adding new urgency to President Donald Trump’s deliberations over whether to rip up the nuclear deal with Tehran that he has long threatened to cast aside.


Trump faces a series of key decisions starting next week — foremost, whether to honour part the 2015 agreement that lifted restrictions on Iran’s banking, oil and shipping industries. He could opt to re-impose the sanctions and risk collapse of the accord, a move that could isolate the US

The protests and crackdown give Trump an unexpected opportunity to turn sustained negative attention on the Iranian government. He could use the violence to pressure a divided Congress to back new sanctions legislation. He could also urge European allies to take tougher action on Iran along with the US, such as new measures targeting individuals or entities that censor or harm demonstrators.

But walking away from the nuclear deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and signed by six countries and the European Union — would likely take those opportunities off the table.

“The US, if we chose to re-impose sanctions under the JCPOA at this point, we would be alone in doing that,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs under President George W. Bush.

“While I don’t think you can say that they would be ineffective,” Singh said, “I think it’s hard to imagine that they would generate the results that we would be looking for.”

New sanctions

For administration officials and lawmakers who want to keep the US in the accord, those pending decisions have added momentum to a push for new sanctions legislation in Congress that could give the president enough political cover to keep the deal alive.

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is spearheading an effort to forge a bipartisan compromise that would tighten restrictions on Iran while preserving the deal, in a way that would be palatable to European partners. Yet, Corker, a Tennessee Republican, cautioned that the protests shouldn’t determine the fate of the deal and that the US should avoid becoming involved in the discord.

“I would hope that we would not make ourselves the focus of that,” Corker said. “That just gives them an outside force to focus on and divert people’s interest or interest towards us instead of towards the Iranian government itself.”

Corker said he will meet on Thursday with White House officials to discuss Iran. He has been working with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, for months on the measure.

Cardin said he doesn’t yet have a sense of Trump’s thinking on the “complicated” decision, and that he also plans to discuss the issue this week with White House officials. “We’re more than willing to be helpful, provided that Europe is OK with it, and we don’t violate the agreement,” he said.

‘Fundamental rights’

Europeans are standing by the nuclear agreement even as they have criticised the crackdown on protesters.

The European Union, in a statement released on Tuesday, said “peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression are fundamental rights that apply to every country, and Iran is no exception.” The statement didn’t mention the nuclear agreement.

Trump has long criticised the nuclear agreement, which was forged by his predecessor former President Barack Obama. In addition to Iran and the US, the signatories include China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the European Union. In October, Trump refused to certify that it was in the US’s interest, and, he’s expected to do so again next week.

Corker cautioned he was not certain he could get an agreement in time for next week’s deadline but expressed hope for patience “as long as the president knows that progress is being made.”

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