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Tillerson Says Strategic Patience Has Failed With Iran, North Korea

  • Cindy Saine

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the U.S.-Saudi Arabia CEO Summit, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, April 19, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump has directed the National Security Council to review the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program and evaluate whether suspending sanctions "is vital to the national security interests of the United States."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration was conducting a comprehensive review of its Iran policy across the entire U.S. government. He said this review must address all the threats posed by Iran, adding, "It's clear there are many."

Watch: Tillerson: Unchecked Iran Could Become Global Threat

Tillerson noted Iran's continued support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its long-standing hostility toward Israel, and said Tehran has "one of the world's worst human rights records."

On the international Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tillerson said it had failed to achieve its objective of a nuclear-free Iran.

Tillerson made a rare appearance in front of reporters at the State Department, saying, "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. The evidence is clear Iran's provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world."

90-day review

Tillerson had revealed the Iran policy review in a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Paul Ryan.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the administration was conducting a 90-day review of the deal.

"The president is directing the National Security Council to lead an inter-agency review of the plan and then evaluate whether suspensions, sanctions related to Iran … are in the vital interest of our national security," he said.

Tillerson said that as of Tuesday, Iran was complying with its responsibilities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which it agreed to in 2015 after negotiations with the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.

"Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods," Tillerson wrote.

FILE - An Iranian technician walks through a uranium conversion facility just outside Isfahan, south of the capital, Tehran, in this February 2007 photo.

FILE - An Iranian technician walks through a uranium conversion facility just outside Isfahan, south of the capital, Tehran, in this February 2007 photo.

Any U.S. move to reimpose sanctions could cause Iran to pull out of the deal.

"Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part," the agreement says.

Zachary Goldman, a former U.S. Treasury official who dealt with terrorism and financial intelligence in the previous Obama administration, told VOA Persian's NewsHour show that he was not alarmed by Trump's move.

"It's obviously well within the president's prerogative to review international agreements shortly after he takes office," Goldman said on Wednesday's program. "There's nothing wrong or inherently suspicious about that."

Goldman, who heads New York University's Center on Law & Security, also said it was "no secret" that Trump was "very skeptical" of the JCPOA and that he had imposed several new sanctions on Iran in recent months in retaliation for Iranian actions unrelated to nuclear activity, such as ballistic missile tests and perceived human rights abuses.

He also said he thought the threshold for any U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA would be "quite high," given that it could have "very significant diplomatic consequences" for Washington.

Not without precedent

Appearing in the same NewsHour program, James Robbins, a former special assistant in the defense secretary's office during the George W. Bush administration, said a U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal would not be without precedent.

Robbins pointed to Bush's order of a National Security Council review of a 1972 U.S. anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union — a review that led to a recommendation of a withdrawal and a Bush decision to do so.

"There have been cases in which a review has resulted in withdrawing from an agreement, so it is certainly possible in this [JCPOA] case," he said.

But, Robbins, now a national security analyst with the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington research group, said he did not foresee the Trump administration withdrawing completely from the nuclear deal.

"It may come back with a finding of reimposing certain U.S. sanctions that have been waived," he said. "If that takes place, and the regime in Tehran follows through on a threat to pull out of the agreement altogether, then the snapback mechanism of the JCPOA could come into force and the U.N. could return to the previous status of sanctions under Security Council resolutions. So, Tehran would be well-advised not to overreact to whatever happens."

The JCPOA focused on Iran's nuclear program and allegations that it was working to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranian government repeatedly denied those accusations.

The United Nations as well as individual nations, including the United States, imposed economic sanctions on Iran to try to get the country to abandon any nuclear arms ambitions. Those sanctions badly hurt the Iranian economy, particularly limiting its ability to sell oil on the global market, and led to nearly two years of hard-fought negotiations before the two sides reached an agreement.

In exchange for relief from the sanctions that targeted its nuclear activity, Iran agreed to take a number of steps, including affirming that it would under no circumstances "seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons."

Iran is also allowed to conduct only low-level uranium enrichment, and only so much of it, while also shipping out all of its spent nuclear fuel, turning higher-enriched uranium into reactor fuel, and converting a pair of nuclear sites into facilities used for peaceful research.

A Russian-made S-200 air defense system is displayed during a parade marking National Army Day, just outside Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2017.

A Russian-made S-200 air defense system is displayed during a parade marking National Army Day, just outside Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2017.

Process set to resolve disputes

The International Atomic Energy Agency is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the agreement, and a joint commission set up between Iran and the group of six world powers has been established to address any issues that come up.

The JCPOA stipulates that if either side believes the other is violating the agreement, they can launch a dispute resolution process, the final step of which is a U.N. Security Council vote on whether to continue lifting the sanctions.

A U.S. move to reimpose sanctions could cause Iran to pull out of the deal.

"Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part," the agreement says.

Parisa Farhadi of VOA's Persian service contributed to this report.

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