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Trump Says He Won't Recertify Iran Nuclear Deal And Tells Congress To Take Next Steps


President Trump is refusing to certify the Iran nuclear deal, but that doesn't mean that he's walking away from it. Instead he's telling Congress to decide on how the U.S. should keep up the pressure on Iran. And that could be risky, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The way Trump sees it, the nuclear deal provided a lifeline to a fanatical regime that supports terrorist groups in the Middle East. It offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear program, some of which will be phased out over time.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout.

KELEMEN: And it's not only the so-called sunset clauses that Trump doesn't like. By U.S. law, he has to certify to Congress every 90 days that the deal is working and that the U.S. sanctions relief is proportionate to the steps Iran has taken.


TRUMP: I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification.

KELEMEN: Congress could now vote to reimpose sanctions, a move that would violate the deal, but the president isn't asking lawmakers to do that. Instead he wants them to rewrite the legislation that requires this presidential certification. Ben Rhodes, a former Obama administration official, calls the move unnecessary and arbitrary.

BEN RHODES: This is entirely about Trump's annoyance with the certification process which forces him to certify that Iran is complying with the deal, that the deal is working and that all of his bombastic rhetoric about the deal has been based in dishonesty.

KELEMEN: And Rhodes says Trump is putting Congress in a difficult place. Republican Senator Bob Corker says he plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would ensure that the president wouldn't have to weigh in as often. It would also address some of Trump's concerns by automatically reimposing sanctions if Iran is ever less than a year away from having enough fuel for a nuclear bomb or if it makes advances in its intercontinental ballistic missile program. Corker says this legislation would last indefinitely unlike the nuclear deal.

BOB CORKER: We have provided a route to overcome deficiencies and to keep the administration in the deal and actually make it the kind of deal that it should have been in the first place.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he's been working with Congress on this but doesn't want to call it a slam dunk. He argues that this debate in Congress will give him leverage in talks with other countries involved in the nuclear deal in Europe, Russia and China. Former U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman has doubts about that after spending a lot of time with European ambassadors.

WENDY SHERMAN: They have said that the other activities of concern of Iran - they are happy to be in discussions with the United States and to try to have a discussion and a negotiation with Iran on those activities. But the deal itself - not open to renegotiation.

KELEMEN: Though Corker says the legislation he intends to introduce doesn't violate the deal, Sherman says it could.

SHERMAN: Anything that adds unilateral conditions is a unilateral violation of the deal itself.

KELEMEN: Senator Corker says he's telling European allies to see this as a half-glass-full policy. After all, the U.S. is staying in the deal. And that's a case he's making to Democrats, too. But Trump had a warning about that.


TRUMP: In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.

KELEMEN: The European Union's top diplomat, though, says it's not up to one country to end a deal that was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council and is working to contain Iran's nuclear program. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.