US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert announces an extension of the JCPOA in Washington, D.C., on September 14. Photo: US State
WASHINGTON - The Trump administration on Thursday extended sanctions relief to Iran, avoiding imminent action that could implode the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, even as President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Tehran of not respecting the entire agreement.
The extensions of the waivers on nuclear sanctions, first issued by the Obama administration, were accompanied by new penalties imposed against 11 Iranian people and companies accused of supporting Iran's ballistic missile program or involvement in cyber-attacks against the U.S. financial system.
The combination of steps - known internally as "waive and slap" - came as the administration nears completion of a monthslong review of its Iran policy that is expected next month, perhaps as early as October 15 when Trump must inform Congress if Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear agreement and whether the deal remains in U.S. national security interests.
In comments to reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump repeated his campaign pronouncement that the deal is bad and again said he believes Iran is violating its terms and spirit.
"The Iran deal is one of the worst deals I've ever seen," he said. "Not a fair deal to this country. It's a deal that should have never ever been made. You'll see what we're doing ... it's going to be in October."
"We are not going to stand for what they are doing to this country," Trump said. "They have violated so many elements but they have also violated the spirit of that deal."
Speaking in London at a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson., Tillerson told reporters the administration's approach to Iran could not be determined on the basis of the nuclear accord alone.
"We must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just its nuclear capabilities," he said, citing obligations to uphold regional and international security.
"Iran is clearly in defiance of these obligations," Tillerson said, pointing to its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, cyber activity and testing of ballistic missiles.
The White House did not issue a statement announcing the extension of the sanctions waivers and left it to the State Department to make the move public.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert recited a litany of what she called provocative and belligerent Iranian action that she said demonstrated Iran's malign behavior before announcing the "waive" part of the strategy.
"The administration did approve waivers in order to maintain some flexibility as we consult on Capitol Hill and among allies and partners to address the flaws in the JCPOA, and additional time to develop our policy to address the full range of Iranian malign behavior," she said. She added that the move "should not be seen as an indication of President Trump or his administration's position on the (nuclear deal), nor is the waiver giving the Iranian regime a pass on its broad range of malign behavior."
Meanwhile, the Treasury delivered the "slap" part of the strategy, imposing sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iranian airlines and those believed to have been involved in cyberattacks on U.S. banks.
"Treasury will continue to take strong actions to counter Iran's provocations, including support for the IRGC-Qods Force and terrorist extremists, the ongoing campaign of violence in Syria, and cyberattacks meant to destabilize the U.S. financial system," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
The nuclear sanctions waivers are America's part of the deal's central bargain. In exchange for Tehran rolling back its atomic program, the U.S. and other world powers agreed to suspend wide-ranging oil, trade and financial penalties that had choked the Iranian economy.
As officials have made clear for months, the White House is seeking ways to find that Tehran is not complying with the agreement.
Iran rejects that it has broken the agreement. And it can point to a U.N. report this week showing that Iran was meeting the conditions on its nuclear program set out in the accord. The July 2015 deal was reached by Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, China, Germany and Russia.
Under U.S. law, the president must certify to Congress every 90 days whether Iran is adhering to the agreement. If the president doesn't certify compliance, Congress has 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions lifted under the agreement.
The next certification deadline is Oct. 15 and several officials and people close to the matter have described Trump as determined to "decertify" Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal at that point - a finding that would jeopardize the entire agreement.
The officials weren't authorized to discuss such internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tillerson said talks continue with the president and his senior advisers, but "no decision has been made."
On Thursday and in previous comments, Trump has said he is inclined not to certify Iranian compliance after having twice found it compliant at earlier deadlines.
Iran deal opponents inside and outside the administration argue that Tehran's full compliance is unproven, particularly on allowing nuclear inspections at military sites. They argue that at the very least Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement with its ballistic missile tests. Those, however, aren't specifically covered in the nuclear agreement.
Thursday's decision sets the stage for talks on the agreement's future with European allies and others during next week's U.N. General Assembly.