WASHINGTON ― When President Donald Trump floated pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, his Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged him to keep the agreement intact.
On Tuesday, Trump fired Tillerson, citing the ousted diplomat’s position on the Iran deal as a key point of friction. Trump said he plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo, an outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear accord, to head the State Department.
“Rex and I have been talking about this for a long time,” Trump told reporters at the White House before departing for California. “We got along, actually, quite well but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal; I think it’s terrible, I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something and he felt a little bit differently.”
Against the recommendations of some of his top advisers, Trump has already moved toward withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers. Last October, Trump took the symbolic step of “decertifying” the Iran deal while still officially keeping the U.S a party to the accord. At the time, Trump urged Congress to pass legislation that would unilaterally alter U.S. commitments under the international agreement — a move that the Iranians would likely see as a breach of the deal. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) drafted legislation in line with Trump’s request, but it failed to attract support from Democrats. Even so, Trump has continued to waive new sanctions against Iran, the key U.S. commitment under the agreement.
In an effort to convince Trump to stay in the nuclear accord, European allies who are party to the deal have scrambled to cobble together an additional agreement that would address some of the criticisms of the nuclear agreement, including tougher limits on Iranian missile tests.
Trump has threatened to refuse to sign the next round of sanctions waivers, due on May 12, unless the Europeans reach an agreement to “fix” the nuclear deal.
Tillerson never appeared to have much sway over Trump’s thinking — but supporters of the Iran deal fear that by pushing Tillerson aside and replacing him with Pompeo, the president is paving the way to pull out of the agreement altogether.
“Now with news of Pompeo replacing Tillerson, the writing seems even more clearly on the wall as to the fate of the Iran deal,” Robert Malley, a former Middle East adviser in the Obama administration, tweeted on Tuesday.
Pompeo, a Republican hawk and former Army officer, has long railed against Tehran and the Iran deal. A day before his nomination to the CIA was announced, he tweeted he was looking forward to “rolling back” what he called the “disastrous” agreement.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed Pompeo’s nomination to the State Department on Tuesday. Haley also opposes the Iran deal, and she has tried to rally the international community behind the Trump administration’s stance on Iran. In December, she accused Tehran of violating U.N. Security Council resolution by providing missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
If Trump pulls out of the nuclear accord altogether, it is possible that Iran and the other parties to the deal — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — would continue to uphold its terms. European diplomats have already signaled they are considering ways to insulate their companies from secondary U.S. sanctions if the U.S. walks away from the agreement and reimposes sanctions.
But Iran could also choose to declare the deal null, citing non-compliance by the U.S. In that case, Iran could ramp up its nuclear program and international inspectors would lose access to the country’s nuclear sites.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed skepticism that Tillerson’s exit will result in the complete undoing of the nuclear agreement.
“I think the Iran deal is kind of baked. In that that the president has laid out what he wants from international actors … I don’t really think it affects the outcome,” Corker told reporters on Tuesday.
“But I think this is a decision the president’s going to make based on where the Europeans evolve to,” he added. “And it’s solely the responsibility of the administration to work out something with our European allies. It’s not Congress’ responsibility. It’s theirs.”