Sun, May 13, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Behind the scenes of Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran deal

The Trump administration’s preparations for dropping out of the Iran nuclear deal stretch back to January

By Josh Lederman  /  AP, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Constance Chou

It was all there on paper in black and white, down to the precise number of centrifuges: The terms of a potential “fix” that US President Donald Trump had demanded for the US to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.

Dragged kicking and screaming into five months of negotiations, the US’ closest allies in Europe had finally agreed in principle to the toughest of Trump’s demands. They conceded that some expectation could be put into place in perpetuity that Iran should never get closer than one year from building a bomb. All that was left was to figure out creative language for how that constraint would be phrased that everyone could support.

Trump walked away from the deal anyway.

Announcing that the US was out, he called the 2015 pact his predecessor brokered “defective at its core” and said the US would immediately re-impose sanctions lifted under the deal.

“We can’t allow a deal to hurt the world,” Trump added on Wednesday, as the world scrambled to figure out what comes next.

However, behind the scenes, the Trump administration had been actively preparing for a pullout since January, when Trump declared that he would withdraw if an “add-on” deal was not reached. To many US officials, it was as clear then as now that Trump would not be swayed to accept even a toughened-up version of the accord.

This account of how Trump withdrew from the deal draws on interviews on Wednesday with a dozen US White House officials, senior US Department of State officials, foreign diplomats and outside advisers to the Trump administration involved in the negotiations. Most were not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump had just celebrated the anniversary of becoming president in January when he issued his ultimatum: If there was no fix to the deal by yesterday, the US would be out. There was no chance that three of the deal’s members — Iran, Russia and China — would consider changes, so Trump focused on the Europeans — Germany, the UK and France — in hopes that the rest would go along once a fix was agreed to by the rest.

“This is a last chance,” Trump said.

Right away, a team led by Brian Hook, the State Department’s policy chief, began intensive negotiations with the Europeans on the issues that Trump insisted had to be fixed: new penalties on Iran’s ballistic missile inspections, expanded access for UN nuclear inspectors and an extension of the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment beyond the current life of the deal.

Before long, the US found the Europeans were amenable to dealing with the first two. The third was a non-starter. After all, the terms of the 2015 deal explicitly say that the restrictions “sunset” over time. Any extension without Iran’s explicit consent would put the Europeans themselves in breach of the deal.

A supplemental agreement was drafted and tweaked, and tweaked again, even as negotiations continued about what mechanism to use to hold the Iranians to the restrictions indefinitely. At least one draft included footnotes specifying that the same nuclear parameters in the 2015 deal should continue to be in place: no more than 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges, no uranium stockpiles larger than 300kg, no enrichment beyond 3.67 percent and no advanced centrifuges, according to an individual who read the draft.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley led a parallel effort to get France and the UK to toughen up on other Iranian behavior, such as its support for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and for Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels in Yemen. Haley’s argument to the Europeans: Helping us with these side issues can only help you make your case to Trump to stay in the deal.

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