Tillerson likens Iran to North Korea in attack on ‘failed’ nuclear deal

US secretary of state says Tehran’s ‘provocative actions’ threaten the world

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson holds a press conference on Iran at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson holds a press conference on Iran at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images


US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has described a landmark nuclear deal with Iran as a failure, only hours after the State Department said Tehran was complying with its terms.

But the top US diplomat stopped short of threatening to jettison the 2015 agreement that was brokered by world powers, or say whether the Trump administration would punish Iran with new sanctions.

The whiplash left Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had universally excoriated the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear programme and voted against its implementation, uncertain how to respond. Its architects, however, said they were cautiously optimistic that the deal would stay in place.

The nuclear deal “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran”, Mr Tillerson said. “It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

He said that Iran continued to threaten the United States and the rest of the world, and announced that the Trump administration was reviewing ways to counter challenges posed by Tehran.

His comments to reporters were an attempt to clarify a State Department certification, issued shortly before a midnight deadline on Tuesday, that said Iran was complying with the nuclear agreement that also eased crippling international sanctions against the Islamic republic’s economy.

During the 2016 election campaign, US president Donald Trump denounced the agreement as “the worst deal ever”, and vice president Mike Pence promised to rip it up.

In a hastily called news conference at the State Department on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson likened Iran to North Korea, whose nuclear weaponry and burgeoning missile technology is what the administration now believes is the gravest risk to world peace and security. Mr Pence visited Seoul, South Korea, this week to declare that the United States was united with its allies to stem North Korea’s threat.

The Iran deal “represents the same failed approach to the past that brought us to the current imminent threat that we face from North Korea”, Mr Tillerson told reporters. “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.”

Once the National Security Council completes its review of the nuclear deal, Mr Tillerson said, “we will meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.”

Cryptic remarks

Hours earlier, late on Tuesday night, Mr Tillerson had sent a terse letter to House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan pledging to evaluate whether earlier suspension of sanctions against Iran, as required under the terms of the nuclear agreement, “is vital to the national security interests of the United States”.

A man of few words, Mr Tillerson has sometimes found that his cryptic remarks create more confusion than clarity among allies, friends and even adversaries. Earlier on Wednesday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, offered little additional information about the Iran certification. He refused to say whether the Trump administration would add the Iran deal to a series of other stunning foreign policy reversals it has made by deciding to retain it instead of ripping it up or renegotiating the agreement as promised.

“I think part of the review, the inter-agency process, is to determine where Iran is in compliance with the deal and to make recommendations to the president on the path forward,” Mr Spicer said.

The enigmatic remarks left top Republicans on Capitol Hill nonplussed. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who led congressional opposition to the Iran deal, said in a statement that the administration’s “certification is shaky, and it doesn’t mean that the intentions behind Iran’s nuclear programme are benign”.

Tennessee senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the Trump administration appeared to be preparing a tougher line against Iran. “Secretary Tillerson made clear that regardless of Iran’s technical compliance with the nuclear deal, the administration is under no illusion about the continued threat from Tehran and is prepared to work closely with Congress to push back,” Mr Corker said in a statement on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s certification extends sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for continued constraints on its nuclear programme. US sanctions, as approved by Congress, were suspended instead of revoked; they can be reimposed with the stroke of a presidential pen.

The Trump administration has given itself 90 days to complete its review, but will need to make a series of decisions in coming weeks about whether to continue its support of the deal, which was also brokered with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Those governments, along with representatives of the United States and Iran, will meet next week in Vienna to review the pact’s progress.

Mr Trump faces a mid-May deadline, as imposed by Congress, to decide whether to continue the suspension of sanctions. Backing away from the agreement would spur enormous consternation across Europe and in Moscow. In their first congratulatory phone calls to Mr Trump after his electoral victory, both Russian president Vladimir Putin and chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany stressed the need to keep the Iran deal in place.

And after her first meeting with Mr Tillerson in February, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the Trump administration had pledged “to stick to the full strict implementation of the agreement in all its parts”.

Pressure on Iran

Analysts and former government officials said it was unlikely the Trump administration would renounce the Iran agreement. “I’m glad this deal has held up to this point, and I hope it continues to hold up,” said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state who was deeply involved in negotiating terms of the deal during the Obama administration.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was involved in Iran policy under then president Barack Obama, said it was “pretty much a foregone conclusion” that Mr Trump would keep the nuclear agreement in place.

Still, the administration has sought since its first days in office to ratchet up pressure on Iran. In January, before he resigned, Michael Flynn, then the national security adviser, walked into the White House briefing room and declared that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” after it launched a ballistic missile.

The Trump administration has returned the United States to closer ties with its traditional Arab friends in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Part of those ties means supporting those nations, which are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, in their intense rivalry with Iran, a Shia power.

By contrast, by the end of his second term, Mr Obama had begun to view those sectarian tensions with a jaundiced eye, believing the United States should not intervene in a millennium-old religious struggle. Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson attended a US-Saudi Arabia chief executive summit where he declared that he was “pleased to be here today to reaffirm the very strong partnership that exists between the United States and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a pro-Israeli group that sought to defeat the Iran deal, said the administration might still walk away from the agreement or renegotiate it. He contended that the administration “should not be bound by arms control agreements that are deeply flawed”.

And even Ms Sherman shied away from predicting it would remain in place. “I’m taking this one day at a time,” she said.

New York Times