State Department couldn’t explain anything about Trump’s withdrawal from Iran deal

This is an absolute mess.

President Donald J. Trump signs a National Security Presidential Memorandum as he announces the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Tuesday, May 08, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT:  Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump signs a National Security Presidential Memorandum as he announces the withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Tuesday, May 08, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that the United States would withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, the State Department held a background briefing with reporters. During that briefing, they had a really tough time explaining Trump’s decision.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed between Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany. The historic agreement limited Iran’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for some sanctions relief. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified Iran’s compliance with the deal 11 times.

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Trump announced that he would no longer extend waivers for Iran sanctions — a violation of U.S. obligations in the deal — and that the United States would withdraw from the agreement.

Hours later, the State Department spoke with reporters, but failed to provide any clarity for what U.S. policy towards Iran would look like in future, or what exactly the United States achieved by withdrawing from the agreement.

Here are 5 of the big takeaways from that briefing:

1. The State Department doesn’t know whether the United States will be in a better place without the agreement.

The two senior State Department officials couldn’t explain to reporters whether the United States will be in a better position without the nuclear agreement, especially since they don’t know if European allies will work with the United States moving forward.

QUESTION: You don’t know right now whether you’re going to be in a better place or in a worse place; is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, we think we’re going to be in a better place.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, we know we’re —

QUESTION: But you don’t know.

2. They don’t know what the future of U.S. sanctions on Iran will look like.

Nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were technically lifted in January 2016 under the Iran deal. So long as Iran continued to comply with the agreement — as verified by the IAEA — international sanctions were to remain lifted.

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On Tuesday, Trump refused to waive sanctions on Iran and instead announced that “powerful sanctions” would be reimposed. This appears to be the president’s primary strategy on Iran: sanction the country again until we get a “better” deal.

Iran has been sanctioned in some form since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but what matters most here are what’s known as “secondary sanctions.” First imposed in 2010, these sanctions went beyond U.S. borders and targeted non-U.S. entities and non-Americans that did business with Iran. The secondary sanctions were later expanded in 2012 to target those who did business with Iran’s oil industry in particular.

Secondary sanctions only work if other companies (and countries) decide to abide by them. Usually they do, because of the power of the U.S. economy. In 2012, for example, the European Union banned Iranian oil imports a few months after the United States passed its sanctions.

But there’s no real clarity on what sanctions on Iran will look like this time around. All we know so far is that there will be a wind-down period of 90 days, and then another wind-down period of six months. That would allow U.S. and foreign companies enough time to stop doing business with Iran.

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All the other signatories to the deal have condemned Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, so there’s no indication that they’ll reimpose sanctions.

A reporter during the briefing Tuesday asked whether there will be “any carveouts for individual companies or countries” during the wind-down period. One of the officials first said that any U.S. company or country is allowed to ask the United States for a license to continue doing business with Iran.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They can ask for whatever they want.

QUESTION: So you’re open to having those conversations.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I didn’t say that. I said that we’re going engage – we’re going to engage our European allies and others, and I just don’t know.

It’s a bit strange that administration officials don’t know what the future of sanctions will look like — especially since sanctions seems to be the only real strategy moving forward. If you can’t describe what your sanctions will look like, they’re a pretty ineffective foreign policy tool.

3. “We did not talk about Plan B.”

Reporters asked administration officials during the briefing why Trump chose to withdraw from the agreement when there’s no sign that European allies will work with or against the United States on this issue.

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The administration officials said that they were in “constant conversations with the Europeans,” but were unable to say what will happen moving forward and admitted there is no Plan B in place.

QUESTION: But again, I just want to understand: You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do in terms of the entire ancillary agreement you’ve negotiated? You do not know at this point what the Europeans are going to do, whether they’re going to fight you and – and, like they do with Cuba, protect their companies against your secondary sanctions or what – you do not know what the Europeans, your closest allies, are going to do vis-a-vis any of the ancillary effects of getting out of this deal. Is that right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re in constant conversations with the Europeans on this.

QUESTION: But you don’t know at this point? You don’t know? You didn’t get to that in your discussions, what’s going to happen?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We did not talk about a Plan B in our discussions because we were focused on negotiating a supplemental agreement, so we did not – we did not talk about Plan B.

QUESTION: And what makes you think that Iran is going to go along with a whole new renegotiation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t know if they will. We don’t know if they will, and the President said that in his statement. He doesn’t know if the Iranians are willing to talk, but he said at the end of the statement that he’s willing, able, and ready to talk.

4. They actually pointed to a tweet to explain U.S. accomplishments.

After Trump made his announcement, the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) leaders released a statement that said the “world is a safer place as a result” of the agreement. Reporters kept pushing the administration officials on the fact that all the other partners to the Iran agreement want to stay in the agreement.

An administration official pointed out that French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about a four-pillar strategy on Iran when he visited Washington, D.C. last month. When a reporter pointed out that a key pillar included keeping the nuclear agreement, the administration official said that Macron tweeted “something that seemed to indicate to me a French willingness to work with us.”

“So you guys have a positive tweet out of it,” the reporter said. “That’s amazing.”

Macron tweeted that France “will work collectively on a broad framework,” but in a follow up tweet he also said that France regrets the U.S. decision to leave the agreement.

5. There is no timeline for what happens next.

So far during this briefing, State Department officials admitted that they don’t know if the United States will be in a better place without the agreement, they don’t know what sanctions will look like moving forward, and there is no plan B in place.

They concluded the briefing by admitting that there’s no timeline for U.S. strategy on Iran moving forward.

“I don’t want to put a timeframe on it,” one official said, when asked when we can judge whether Trump’s strategy has been successful or not.

QUESTION: Okay, so just – so for our purposes, let’s say in a year, if you guys – or six months – if you guys do not have a supplemental agreement with all of your allies about addressing this global problem, it will – can we then say that this strategy has not been successful, if in a year you don’t have it? When can we say, okay, you guys promised us a more comprehensive, more global strategy to deal with Iranian malign behavior after you got rid of the last one? When do we get to judge whether you succeeded or failed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think you would have to make a cost/benefit decision, right, at six months, at 12 months.

QUESTION: So if you have – if you don’t have an arrangement —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Continually.

QUESTION: — with your allies in six months, will this strategy have failed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t want to put a timeframe on it, because the wind down is six months for energy sanctions. So part of the strategy is showing Iran that there is economic isolation as a result of its destabilizing activity, so I think we have to be able to build this coalition, build up some economic pressure. So that is the strategy, though, and at the end of the day, if that strategy is – you will judge us based on that strategy.