Tillerson attacks Iran nuclear deal as US sets review to possibly walk away from the pact

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 6:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 6:22am

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tore into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying it only delayed the country’s ambition to gain weapons of mass destruction and didn’t take into account its role in sponsoring terrorism and destabilising other countries.

“This deal represents the same failed approach of the past,” Tillerson said at a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday. “The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration.”

The tough talk followed the most tangible step taken by Tillerson on Iran: Certifying to Congress late Tuesday that the Islamic Republic is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal, a finding required by law every 90 days.

Tillerson’s announcement was the strongest signal to date that President Donald Trump may walk away from the nuclear deal. Trump this week ordered his National Security Council to review whether to reimpose sanctions that were eased under the accord because of Iran’s continued support for terrorism. Tillerson said in his statement that the review will determine whether the suspension of sanctions “is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

Trump has panned what he’s called “the horrible Iran deal” reached by the US and five other world powers under his predecessor, Barack Obama. During last year’s presidential campaign, he called for dismantling or renegotiating it. Republicans in Congress also have been critical, advocating new sanctions on Iran for supporting terrorism and for its ballistic missile programme.

Under the international agreement, Iran is allowed to enrich and store some uranium for energy production, although it had to reduce its uranium stockpile by 96 per cent, idle many of its enrichment centrifuges and pour concrete into its heavy-water nuclear reactor. The Obama administration insisted the provisions would slow the time it would take Iran to produce nuclear weapons.

Opponents of the agreement have called for renegotiating the accord with the goal of making permanent its 15-year moratorium on uranium enrichment close to the level needed to make a bomb. But reimposing sanctions that were explicitly tied to Iran’s nuclear programme -- as Tillerson suggested in his announcement -- would face particular opposition from European allies and give the government in Tehran grounds to walk away from the accord.

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“The deal is working and there’s absolutely no reason to pull away from it,” Barbara Slavin, acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in an interview Wednesday. “The US would be isolated from the rest of the world. Iran is abiding by it.”

She said the review was a fig leaf to cover a decision by the Trump administration to abide by the Iran accord, if grudgingly. “Every administration, when it doesn’t know what the hell to do, reviews things,” Slavin said.

In his comments Wednesday, Tillerson criticised Iran for its hostility toward Israel, its sponsorship of Houthi rebels in Yemen and its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The evidence is clear -- Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world,” Tillerson said. He said one of the mistakes of the deal was how it “completely ignored” other threats posed by Iran.