One of Donald Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill said on Thursday that he expects the president to keep the United States in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal—at least for a short period of time.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and one of the lawmakers with whom Trump speaks with most regularly, told The Daily Beast that the president would likely decline to back out entirely when a deadline to waive sanctions against Tehran comes next week.
“I would not necessarily draw a foregone conclusion that we’re out this month,” Meadows said in an interview. “To suggest that it’s a foregone conclusion that we’ll be out in weeks would be inaccurate based on my conversations with some of my colleagues on Capitol Hill, both Democrat and Republican.”
Meadows’ comments offer an eleventh-hour glimmer of hope for supporters of the Iran deal, most of whom have grown convinced that Trump would withdraw the U.S. from the Obama-brokered agreement. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington on a mission to persuade Trump to keep the U.S. compliant with the terms of the agreement while U.S. and European negotiators work on fixing certain provisions.
“If I had to handicap it, I would believe there’d be a short-term extension as we look to re-negotiate an agreement, even though the parties to those agreements have said re-negotiation is not on the table,” said Meadows, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
According to Meadows, the president appears to be more focused on his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and trade policy with China. The conservative congressman suggested that Trump wouldn’t want a withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal to get in the way of his administration’s ongoing discussions with those two countries.
“Knowing that the deadlines on some of this correspond to key discussions on trade with China and denuclearization talks with North Korea, I can see a deferral more than an outright withdrawal being a tactic that is used right now,” Meadows added.
But as with all things involving the Trump White House, it could all change before the May 12 deadline for the president to decide whether to re-impose U.S. sanctions—a move that would put the U.S. in violation of the deal. Inside the White House, the perception about the Iran deal’s future is sharply, if cautiously, different from Meadow’s.
Many close to Trump are treating a break from the international agreement this month as all but a done deal. Numerous sources across the administration say that senior ranks, from the West Wing to the Treasury Department, are preparing for Trump to kill the Iran deal after he repeatedly said the last certification would be the “last time” he’d do so.
White House officials and Trump confidants all cautioned, however, that a decision is never final until it is final. The president has, against his instincts, signed off on recertification in the past. Still, in private conversations over the past several months, Trump has given few signals—“zero indication, zilch,” in the words of one longtime associate—that he has an appetite to remain in the Iran nuclear deal, instead complaining about how “horrible” and “pathetic” and “lousy” he views it.
Many surrounding Trump at the highest levels, including newly minted national security adviser John Bolton, have told the president that the deal is beyond “fixing.” Bolton, in fact, had been urging Trump to withdraw even before officially joining the administration, and advised Trump for months in an unofficial capacity while Bolton’s predecessor had been advocating for a diametrically different approach.
Congress is essentially powerless to prevent the president from killing the Obama-brokered accord. Earlier this year, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster were working closely with congressional leaders to salvage the deal by getting rid of the 60- and 90-day certification requirements. Such a move would have allowed the U.S. to quietly remain in compliance with the deal without requiring Trump to rubber-stamp something he had campaigned vehemently against and regularly disparages.
But now, the president has Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as his secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively. Both men oppose the deal and have indicated that they will move Trump in the direction of pulling the U.S. out of it ahead of the next certification deadline in nine days.
Those who have spoken with the president in recent days and weeks—everyone from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) to Macron—have predicted that Trump will pull the U.S. out of the deal, hinting at a lack of progress with the U.S.-European negotiations.
Meadows, for his part, did not appear to be comfortable with remaining in the deal past May 12, even as he predicted that Trump may do so. The congressman has been a vocal proponent of “shredding” the accord outright.
“I think we’ve got a bigger problem. Limited sanctions are not going to bring Iran back to the table just because of our inability to have our European partners necessarily join us in that,” he said.
On the other side of the debate is Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who vehemently opposed the Iran deal at its inception but now argues that it would be disastrous to withdraw from it.
“As much as I dislike the agreement, if you walk away unilaterally, then what’s the follow-up?” Menendez told The Daily Beast. “What’s your plan to ensure that Iran does not achieve nuclear weapons? And what’s your plan to secure a multilateral effort to sanction Iran outside of the nuclear portfolio?”
The senator outlined two scenarios whereby the U.S. decides to re-impose sanctions against European countries and entities doing business with Iran, or the U.S. opts against implementing those sanctions and the Trump administration becomes a “toothless tiger” separated from European allies. Iran has warned in recent days that it could follow suit and pull out of the accord, and its ambassador to the United Kingdom raised the possibility that Tehran resumes its uranium enrichment.
“There is no real procedure for exiting the Iran deal,” warned Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who oversaw the certification process. “I can’t tell that they have a policy objective. This seems to be motivated by presidential animus toward his predecessor more than it is by any specific outcome.”