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White House Intervened to Toughen Letter on Iran Nuclear Deal
President Donald Trump’s hard-line view on Iran was at odds with State Department diplomats
Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee
Updated April 25, 2017 7:20 p.m. ET wsj.com
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump told aides to toughen a State Department letter last week that declared Iran in compliance with a landmark nuclear deal, senior U.S. officials involved in a policy review said.
Top White House officials said the initial letter the State Department submitted was too soft because it ignored Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and support for regional terrorist groups, these officials said.
Mr. Trump personally weighed in on the redrafting of the letter, which was sent to Congress on April 18, the officials said. The final version highlighted Iran’s threatening regional behavior and called into question the U.S.’s long-term support for the multinational accord.
Mr. Trump also told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to follow up the next day with a strident public message that the new administration was planning a shift on policy toward Iran, putting the nuclear deal in play, these officials said.
“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it,” Mr. Tillerson said at the State Department on April 19.
The episode highlighted the divisions between Mr. Trump’s hard-line position on Iran and the approach taken by some career State Department diplomats and many European allies. State Department officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on Mr. Tillerson’s role in the exchange.
The nuclear agreement, which was implemented in January 2016, constrained Iran’s nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of most international sanctions, including some unilateral penalties imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The White House is conducting a 90-day review of its Iran policy and considering steps to significantly ratchet up U.S. efforts to push back against Iran and its military operations in the Middle East.
Potential steps include sanctions against hundreds of Iranian companies that would be vetted for suspected ties to Tehran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, these officials said.
The Trump administration also is exploring ways to enhance international efforts to combat Iran’s ability to smuggle weapons to its military proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The Pentagon has announced its intention to more aggressively challenge Iran’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf, noting its threat to shipping lanes and commercial traffic in the oil-rich region.
In recent days, Mr. Trump and other senior administration officials have publicly questioned the terms of the nuclear deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration over three years. They have hinted at the need to renegotiate it and voiced skepticism that the U.S. and its allies could separate Iran’s nuclear program from its other destabilizing activities.
In a White House where advisers have often been divided on security issues, the pursuit of a tougher Iran policy presents a rare case of broad consensus.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Monday that the White House policy review aims to look at “how we take a more comprehensive look at Iran and its bad behavior in the region.”
Some White House officials said they expect the U.S. won’t withdraw from the nuclear deal, but enforce it to the letter and possibly reinstate sanctions that were lifted as part of the accord under different reasons, such as human-rights abuses or Iran’s ballistic-missile tests.
Iran has ruled out any renegotiation of the nuclear agreement. It also has said any new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration would be viewed as a violation of the deal. Iran also says it’s in compliance with the nuclear deal and blames the U.S. for preventing other countries from investing in Iran by maintaining bilateral sanctions on Iran.
Congress requires U.S. administrations, via the State Department, to notify Capitol Hill every three months about whether Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.
The initial State Department letter on Iran, senior U.S. officials said, was drafted by career diplomats who played leading roles during the Obama administration in negotiating and implementing the Iran deal.
Key players on Iran at the State Department, both under former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump, include Stephen Mull, who serves as lead U.S. coordinator for the deal’s implementation, and Chris Backemeyer, deputy assistant secretary of State for Iranian affairs.
The initial draft met swift resistance when it was sent to the White House for approval last week, the U.S. officials said.
It was taken by White House staff to National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who pressed for tougher language and raised the issue with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the officials said.
Mr. Trump then reviewed the letter, they said. The final draft submitted to Congress last week said Tehran was in compliance with the agreement but highlighted Iran’s role in supporting international terrorism and said the Trump administration was reviewing whether lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal was in the U.S.’s “national security interests.”
Mr. Tillerson initially was skeptical of delivering a hard-hitting speech on Iran at the State Department, but relented, the officials said.
Iran is holding presidential elections in May. President Hassan Rouhani, who championed the nuclear agreement, is seeking to win his second four-year term. Some U.S. and European officials have warned the White House that Mr. Trump’s tough talk on Iran could hurt Mr. Rouhani. His chief opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-line Islamic cleric who is viewed as promoting potentially an even-more-aggressive line internationally.
“We have no dog in this fight, but it’s obviously important that the moderates get the upper hand and win and get the benefits of the deal,” said a senior European diplomat who has discussed Iran with the Trump administration.
Top aides to Mr. Trump have discounted this analysis. They said they believe Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top commanders in the IRGC make all major decisions on foreign affairs and national security. They have said Tehran’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have actually increased since the nuclear deal and Mr. Rouhani’s election. Iran says it is seeking to combat terrorism.
Mr. Khamenei said during a speech on Monday that Iran’s next president should limit engagement with the West, a rebuke of Mr. Rouhani’s policies.
The Trump administration met on Tuesday for the first time with Iranian officials as part of a coordinating meeting in Vienna for the implementation of the nuclear deal. Messrs. Mull and Backemeyer led the U.S. delegation.
Participants in the meeting said U.S. diplomats didn’t express any major shift in Washington’s policy toward Iran. But Iranian diplomats protested the sharp words made by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson in recent weeks.