What is the Iran nuclear deal? Key questions and answers about the deal and its future


President Donald Trump is set to announce his decision on whether to keep the U.S. in the Iran nuclear agreement on Tuesday. One of the deal’s former negotiators suspects Trump will “light the fuse” of an “explosive cocktail” and withdraw. (May 7)

WASHINGTON — President Trump will announce Tuesday whether he will reimpose sanctions waived under the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement he has repeatedly described as one of the worst ever negotiated. Here’s a look at what that agreement includes and what the president’s options are for changing, or ending it.   

What is the Iran nuclear deal?

The United States and five other nations — the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany — negotiated an agreement with Iran in 2015 requiring Tehran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for reduced sanctions.

Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or “the Iran nuclear deal” — the agreement required Iran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium and limit its use of centrifuges to make enriched uranium.

In exchange, the U.S. and other countries agreed to lift a wide range of economic sanctions on Iran. 

So what’s the problem?

Supporters of the agreement, including members of the Obama administration who negotiated it, said the deal was the best option to slow Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Analysts believed Iran was months away from being able to build a nuclear weapon before the agreement.

“The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war,” President Barack Obama said in 2015. “Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”

Opponents, including Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticize many elements of the deal. They note it does not fully eliminate Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. They point out that many of its prohibitions expire after 15 years. And they say the agreement does little to curb Iran’s influence in sectarian conflicts in the region. 

Trump vowed to back out of the Iran agreement during his campaign, and as president he has called it “insane,” “ridiculous,” and “one of the worst deals I have ever witnessed.”

Didn’t President Trump already “de-certify” the Iran agreement?  

He did, but the decision had little impact. Trump declined in October to certify that Iran is upholding its end of the bargain. The decision triggered a 60-day window in which Congress could have imposed sanctions on Iran under expedited rules (that is, the Republican majority could have passed them over the objection of Democrats).

Lawmakers never took that step, however, so the agreement remains in effect. 

So what’s Trump announcing on Tuesday? 

In addition to determining whether to certify Iran’s commitment to the deal, the agreement requires the president to decide whether to waive sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank every 120 days. Trump has previously decided to continue to waive those sanctions and must make that call again by May 12.

Trump said he’ll make the announcement at 2 p.m. Tuesday, a few days early.  

Trump most recently extended the sanctions waiver in January, but warned at that time that it was the “last chance.” Absent a new agreement to address his concerns, the president vowed to “not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.”

The president could make an announcement beyond the sanctions decision. He could, for instance, declare that the U.S. is pulling out of the deal entirely. But he must make a call on the sanctions by May 12.   

If Trump imposes the sanctions on Iran, does it mean the U.S. is necessarily out of the deal?

That’s not clear.

Some experts see an opportunity for Trump to reimpose some sanctions but punt on enforcing them for months — a middle ground that would allow the White House to appear tough on Tehran while giving other parties in the agreement more time to negotiate. The administration could wait six months before enforcing sanctions. 

Others say the U.S. would be in violation of the agreement as soon as the president declares his intention to end the sanctions waiver.  

“It depends,” said William H. Tobey, senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs who worked at the National Nuclear Security Administration under the Bush and Obama administrations. “There are lots of flavors or variations of how the president might treat the deal.”

What happens if Trump announces a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement?

European leaders and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have suggested they might try to keep the agreement intact without U.S. involvement, but that would be a tall order and would open up a host of other questions. If Iran claimed the U.S. is violation of the deal, there would be little to stop Tehran from restarting its nuclear program. 

“There is no Plan B and the risk of Iran exceeding the nuclear limits and getting closer to the bomb vastly increases,” predicted Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

Is the Iran agreement working?

Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly certified Iran is honoring its commitments under the agreement, most recently in March. The organization says its inspectors now spend 3,000 calendar days each year in the country and have applied some 2,000 “tamper-proof seals” on nuclear material.

But there is a caveat. Inspectors have access to known sites under the agreement. But the process for other facilities, including military bases, is more complicated. IAEA inspectors may request access to those sites, but that triggers a negotiation that can last 24 days. Critics say that is enough time for Iran to hide any evidence of enrichment. 

What about the ‘barrels and boxes’ of cash to Iran? 

In a favorite and longstanding criticism of the deal, Trump and other Republicans point to a $1.7 billion transfer of money to Iran, some of which was flown to Iran in cash.

“The president made a horrible deal. When I say the president, I’m talking about [the] past administration made a horrible deal giving $150 billion, giving $1.8 billion in cash — in actual cash carried out in barrels and in boxes from airplanes,” Trump said recently on Fox News. “It’s inconceivable.”

The money was not a payout for the deal but rather part of $100 billion in Iranian assets that were frozen in foreign banks when economic sanctions went into effect, some dating back to the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. The nuclear agreement lifted the sanctions by which that money was seized.

The money was carried in wooden pallets, according to reports at the time. 

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