Trump Orders Review of Iran Sanctions

On April 18, the Trump administration announced the launch of an interagency review of whether sanctions relief for Iran, as part of the nuclear deal, is vital to U.S. national security interests. Iran committed to significantly curbing its nuclear program and taking greater steps towards transparency in exchange for sanctions relief as part of the 2015 agreement, also known as at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

DoS sealIn a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Iran remained compliant with the JCPOA but emphasized that “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods.” The State Department is required to update Congress every 90 days on Iran’s compliance. This was the first notification since President Trump took office.

On April 19, Tillerson expanded on the administration's views of Iran in remarks to the press. He warned that Iran, if left unchecked, could follow the path North Korea took to nuclear weapons. He cited several examples of Iran’s behavior that are contrary to U.S. interests, including:

  • Longstanding hostility toward Israel and support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other armed groups
  • Military support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad
  • Cyberattacks against the United States
  • Detention of U.S. citizens with no justification


Tillerson criticized the nuclear deal for only temporarily blocking Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon and for not dealing with its human rights abuses and support for terror. He also said the United States will be looking to deal with Iran in a more holistic way. 

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also criticized Iran’s actions in the Middle East on April 19.  "Everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran," he told reporters after meetings with Saudi officials in Riyadh. "We will have to overcome Iran's efforts to destabilise yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it."

On April 20, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded via twitter. 


Also on April 20, President Trump alleged that Iran was not “living up to the spirit” of the nuclear deal and said the United States “would have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future.”

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump often criticized the nuclear deal. “My number-one priority is to dismantle the serious deal with Iran,” he said in March 2016. Trump’s rhetoric raised questions as to whether he would pull out of the agreement upon taking office. The following is the full text of Tillerson’s letter and press statement with a transcript of his April 19 remarks, Trump's remarks, and Zarif's response.


Trump Administration Undergoing Interagency Review of Iran Deal

The U.S. Department of State certified to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan today that Iran is compliant through April 18th with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action however, the Secretary also raised concerns about Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism and alerted Congress to an effort directed by the President to evaluate whether continuing to lift sanctions would be in U.S. national security interests.

"Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods. President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States."

The Full Text of the Letter:

April 18, 2017

The Honorable

Paul D. Ryan

Speaker of the House of Representatives

Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr. Speaker:

This letter certifies that the conditions of Section 135(d)(6) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, including as amended by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-17), enacted May 22, 2015, are met as of April 18, 2017.

Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods. President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States. When the interagency review is completed, the administration looks forward to working with Congress on this issue.


Rex W. Tillerson


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Press Availability

April 19, 2017

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  Good afternoon, all.  The Trump administration is currently conducting across the entire government a review of our Iran policy.

Today I’d like to address Iran’s alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.

Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel.

An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it.

The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach.

A comprehensive Iran policy requires that we address all of the threats posed by Iran, and it is clear there are many. 

Iran continues to support the brutal Assad regime in Syria, prolonging a conflict that has killed approximately half a million Syrians and displaced millions more.  Iran supports the Assad regime, even as it commits atrocities against its own people, including with chemical weapons.  Iran provides arms, financing, and training, and funnels foreign fighters into Syria.  It has also sent members of the Iran Revolutionary Guard to take part in direct combat operations.

In Iraq, Iran provides support to some Iraqi militant groups, primarily through the Qods Force, which has been undermining security in Iraq for years.  

Iran maintains a longstanding hostility towards Israel, providing weapons, training, and funding to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations.

In deed and in propaganda, Iran foments discord.

Just yesterday, the regime reportedly exhibited a missile marked “Death to Israel” during a military parade. 

In Yemen, Iran continues to support the Houthis’ attempted overthrow of the government by providing military equipment, funding, and training, thus threatening Saudi Arabia’s southern border.  Interdictions by Emirati forces in Yemen and coalition forces in the Arabian Sea have revealed a complex Iranian network to arm and equip the Houthis.

Iranian naval vessels continue to undermine freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf by harassing U.S. naval vessels that are operating lawfully.

Iran has conducted cyber-attacks against the United States and our Gulf partners.

Iran has been behind terrorist attacks throughout the rest of the world, including a plot to kill Adel al-Jubeir, who was then the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Whether it be assassination attempts, support of weapons of mass destruction, deploying destabilizing militias, Iran spends its treasure and time disrupting peace.

Iran continues to have one of the world’s worst human rights records; political opponents are regularly jailed or executed, reaching the agonizing low point of executing juveniles and individuals whose punishment is not proportionate to their crime.

Iran arbitrarily detains foreigners, including U.S. citizens, on false charges.  Several U.S. citizens remain missing or unjustly imprisoned in Iran.

Apart from the abuses inside Iran’s own borders, it is the threat it poses to the rest of the world.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a grave risk to international peace and security.

It is their habit and posture to use whatever resources they have available to unsettle people and nations.

With its latest test of a medium-range ballistic missile, Iran’s continued development and proliferation of missile technology is in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

And it has previously stated it will conduct a second test flight of the Simorgh space-launch vehicle, which would put it closer to an operational intercontinental ballistic missile.

Any discussion of Iran is incomplete without mentioning the JCPOA.

The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.  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.

As I indicated at the beginning, the Trump administration is currently conducting a comprehensive review of our Iran policy.  Once we have finalized our conclusions, we will meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, by your own letter to the Speaker of the House, Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal.  If you break out of that deal, won’t that send a signal to North Korea and other rogue nations that the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain?  And Iran is already being sanctioned for its terrorism, for its missile (inaudible) by the U.S.  Is another option – one that many Republicans on the Hill have suggested – to increase those sanctions to punish Iran for those behaviors?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  I think it’s important in any conversation on the JCPOA – and I think this was one of the mistakes in how that agreement was put together, is that it completely ignored all of the other serious threats that Iran poses, and I just went through a few of those with you.  And that’s why our view is that we have to look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas, of the region and the world, and the JCPOA is just one element of that.  And so we are going to review completely the JCPOA itself.  As I said, it really does not achieve the objective.  It is another example of buying off a power who has nuclear ambitions; we buy them off for a short period of time and then someone has to deal with it later.  We just don’t --

QUESTION:  So should we break out of it?

SECRETARY TILLERSON:  We just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities.


President Donald Trump

"They [Iranians] are doing a tremendous disservice to an agreement that was signed. It was a terrible agreement, it shouldn't have been signed, it shouldn't have been negotiated the way it was negotiated."

“They are not living up to the spirit of the agreement, I can tell you that. And we are analyzing it very carefully, and we will have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future.”

—April 20, 2017, to the press

AP: On Iran, which is another thing you talked a lot on the campaign —

TRUMP: And the other thing that we should go after is the leakers. ...

AP: On Iran, you also talked about it quite a bit on the campaign trail. And you said in the press conference yesterday that you think that Iran is violating the spirit of the agreement. When you say that, do you mean in terms of the actual nuclear accord, or do you mean what they are doing in the region?

TRUMP: In terms of what they are doing all over the Middle East and beyond.

AP: So you believe that they are complying with the agreement?

TRUMP: No, I don't say that. I say that I believe they have broken the spirit of the agreement. There is a spirit to agreements, and they have broken it.

AP: In terms of what they are doing elsewhere in the Middle East?

TRUMP: In terms of what they are doing of all over.

AP: When you talk to European leaders, when you talk to Merkel, for example, or Teresa May, what do they say about the nuclear deal? Do they want you to stay in that deal?

TRUMP: I don't talk to them about it.

AP: You don't talk to them about the Iran deal?

TRUMP: I mention it, but it's very personal when I talk to them, you know, it's confidential. No, they have their own opinions. I don't say that they are different than my opinions, but I'd rather have you ask them that question.

AP: At this point, do you believe that you will stay in the nuclear deal?

TRUMP: It's possible that we won't.

—April 24, 2017, in an interview with The Associated Press


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Some of the information in this article was originally published on April 19, 2017.