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Deadline Approaches For White House Decision On Keeping Iran Deal Alive


There is an important deadline looming for the Trump administration regarding the nuclear deal with Iran. That deal requires Iran to limit its nuclear program. In exchange, world powers have lifted some economic sanctions against Iran. The deal was implemented in January 2016 to comply with the agreement the U.S. has to periodically waive some sanctions. Tonight is the first such deadline to come under President Trump's watch. So what's he likely to do considering he called the agreement the worst deal ever? NPR's Michele Kelemen has been covering the deal since it was announced. She joins us now.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this deadline for the Trump administration to act is tonight. Right? What exactly are they deciding to do or not do?

KELEMEN: Well, they have to extend these waivers and extend the sanctions relief on one group of sanctions. These are ones that dealt with Iran's oil exports. And basically what has to happen is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has to notify Congress. And if the administration doesn't do that, the U.S. would technically be in violation of the deal. So most experts are expecting this to happen. The Trump administration is reviewing its Iran policy and has already made clear that, until that review's done, it's going to adhere from this nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it's called.

MARTIN: But proponents of the Iran deal aren't taking any chances. They're speaking out right now, presumably because they're trying to pressure the president or make the case that he does need to sign these waivers.

KELEMEN: Well, yeah. I mean, they're nervous about the fate of this deal. The Obama administration officials who negotiated it have now formed a group called Diplomacy Works, and they're advocating for the continuation of the deal. Let's listen, for instance, to the lead negotiator Wendy Sherman, who spoke to NPR.

WENDY SHERMAN: It would be the end of the deal. And if it went up in smoke, either by actions of the U.S. or actions by Iran, it will affect our national security interests. The only reason that everybody complied, particularly with U.S. sanctions, which were quite tough, was because we were engaged in diplomacy. And so if we've given up on diplomacy, those sanctions are going to fray very, very quickly, and America will be blamed for creating a very untenable situation.

KELEMEN: So the idea there, Rachel, is that if the U.S. is blamed for the collapse of this deal, it will be difficult for the U.S. to get partners back onboard. You know, Washington didn't negotiate this alone. There were the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese. And they were also at the table, and they still support the deal.

MARTIN: So what about critics of the Iran nuclear agreement - are they seeing this as an opportunity to speak out?

KELEMEN: Well, what they'd like the Trump administration to do is to send kind of a two-part message. OK, we'll waive these nuclear sanctions for now, but the U.S. will get tougher to punish Iran for its other bad behavior in the region in Syria or in support for Hezbollah or for rebels in Yemen. As for the deal itself, critics say that Iran may not be in material breach, but there have been some violations. And when Tillerson reported to Congress last month that he believes Iran is complying, he also did signal that the Trump administration is keeping much closer tabs. Let's take a listen.


REX TILLERSON: This deal represents the same failed approach of the past that brought us to the current imminent threat we face from North Korea. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.

MARTIN: We should also mention, Michele, Iran's having presidential elections this week. Just briefly - any ramifications potentially for the Trump administration there?

KELEMEN: Well, if the current president wins, most experts say they expect the status quo. But if a hard-liner wins, it could make it easier for the Trump administration to get other countries on board for a tougher approach.

MARTIN: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.