Washington – US President Donald Trump has assigned a new White House team with the task of following up on the nuclear agreement deal with Iran, reported Foreign Policy magazine on Saturday.
With this decision, Trump has set aside the State Department, which was formerly in charge with this issue.
The president made the call after holding a “contentious” meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week.
“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.
The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.
On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said.
Foreign Policy spoke with three sources who were either invited to take part in the new process or were briefed on the president’s decision on certification. All described the new process as a way to work around the State Department, which the president felt pushed certification forward by giving him no other options.
All three sources said Trump specifically asked Tillerson at the previous review to lay the groundwork for decertification — which the sources said Tillerson failed to do.
Trump “is resolved to not recertify deal in 90 days,” said a second source with detailed knowledge of this week’s meeting and the aftermath.
The three sources said it’s too early to tell how this will play out, stressing that all that is certain is that the staffers have gotten a new assignment and there will not be any more details until after the first meeting, tentatively scheduled for early next week.
Trump’s decision follows months of friction between the White House and State Department over how to handle the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump denounced as a presidential candidate. The administration was mired in similar divisions in April, when it had to decide whether to certify that Iran was complying with the deal. Every 90 days, the United States has to declare whether Iran is abiding by the agreement and whether sanctions that were waived should remain lifted.
On July 17, work was on track for the administration to again certify that Iran was meeting the necessary conditions, but the president expressed second thoughts around midday. A meeting between Trump and Tillerson that afternoon quickly turned into a meltdown, said Foreign Policy.
A third source with intimate knowledge of that meeting said Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, were particularly vocal, repeatedly asking Tillerson to explain the US national security benefits of certification. “They repeatedly questioned Rex about why recertifying would be good for US national security, and Rex was unable to answer,” the source said, according to Foreign Policy.
Tillerson’s communications advisor, R.C. Hammond, disputed the account, denying that Tillerson failed to deliver what the president had asked for or that he would be sidelined. “That wouldn’t match up with the conversations the president and secretary had,” he said.
“Not everybody in the room agreed with what the secretary was saying,” Hammond added. “But the president is certainly appreciative that someone is giving him clear, coherent information.”
While Trump has spoken highly of Tillerson in the past, the source close to the White House said, the president was frustrated that the secretary failed to provide him the option not to certify.
“This is about the president asking Tillerson at the last certification meeting 90 days earlier to lay the groundwork so Trump could consider his options,” the first source said. “Tillerson did not do this, and Trump is infuriated. He can’t trust his secretary of state to do his job, so he is turning to the few White House staffers he trusts the most.”
Hammond dismissed this. “Fiction can be fun when you’re an anonymous source,” he said.
At the previous review in April, Trump had asked Tillerson for specific preparations, which included speaking with foreign allies and to make sure they were on board. “Literally Tillerson did none of this,” the source said. “Simply, [Trump] no longer trusts the State Department to do the work he orders them to do, in order to provide him the options he wants to have.”
The two other sources declined to go into specifics about what Tillerson did not do, only stressing that Trump no longer has faith in the secretary, who simply did not carry out an assignment from him.
The three sources told Foreign Policy that, as of Friday, several White House National Security Council (NSC) staffers are expected to be involved including top Middle East advisor Derek Harvey; Joel Rayburn, the director for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria; Michael Anton, who handles strategic communications; and Victoria Coates, who works as Anton’s deputy on strategic communications. Bannon and Gorka, who are both regarded as Iran hawks, are also expected to take part.
Anton, who serves as the NSC spokesman, declined to comment.
Career diplomats at the State Department, who were involved in the negotiations and the initial implementation of the deal under former President Barack Obama, have argued that the agreement is vital as it blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.
Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach — CIA Director Mike Pompeo, reported Foreign Policy.
At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said. As a congressman, Pompeo was a fierce critic of the deal.