Trump stops short of reimposing Iran sanctions but sets deadline to overhaul deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump again stopped short of reimposing punitive sanctions on Iran that could break up its nuclear deal with world powers, the White House said Friday. But Trump gave European allies only 120 days to agree to an overhaul of the deal or administration officials said he would pull the United States out of it.

He also approved sanctions against the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, a powerful figure whom the administration holds culpable for the violent crackdown on recent anti-government protests.

Larijani is the most prominent of several Iranian officials and entities blacklisted, a roster of 14 individuals and entities that also includes the cyber unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the United States said has repressed social media networks that protesters can use to share information.

Trump's action, which was widely expected, is the third time he has given a reprieve to the agreement brokered by President Barack Obama, despite having labeled it "the worst deal ever" and threatening repeatedly to rip it up.

His reluctance to preserve the agreement deepened in recent weeks after the protests, in which at least 21 people died and thousands were jailed. But the president's senior aides again persuaded him not to dissolve it, while European leaders have said Iran was still abiding by its terms — and that breaching it would play into the hands of hard-liners in the country.

Trump, officials said, would not waive the santions again in May unless the Europeans agreed to a "follow-on" deal that eliminates the "sunset clauses" in the current agreement, under which Iran is allowed to resume activities like enriching uranium. It would also have to contain "triggers," including inspections of Iranian facilities, which would lead to a reimposition of sanctions if Iran failed to comply.

Iran did not immediately react to the announcement, though officials said they were prepared if Trump had decided to act. Iran's first vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency, "If the Americans withdraw from the nuclear deal, we will not hold a mourning service; we are fully prepared for any likely event."


White House officials played up the sanctions against Larijani as a symbol of Trump's displeasure with the Islamic Republic's government — and solidarity with those who are rallying against it. They predicted that the move would reverberate politically inside Iran, since Larijani's brother, Ali Larijani, is the head of Iran's Parliament.

Trump's decision came after a Thursday meeting with his national security team on a turbulent day, during which he made a vulgar reference to immigrants in a meeting with senators and told The Wall Street Journal, "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un," referring to the North Korean leader.

Starting Friday, Trump faces a series of deadlines related to the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions that were waived as a result of it. The first of those deadlines — for extending or terminating the waiver for the central bank and oil sanctions — is by far the most significant.

In October, Trump refused to certify the agreement — a decision he is expected to reaffirm next week. At the time, the president warned that he would take further action to nullify the deal if Congress and the allies did not act.

"In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies," he said, "then the agreement will be terminated."

Republicans in the Senate have drafted legislation that would amend the deal by eliminating its "sunset provisions." But they have so far been unable to bridge gaps with the Democratic caucus.

There is also no evidence that the Europeans have the appetite to reopen the deal.

On Thursday, hours before Trump made his decision, European foreign ministers met in Brussels with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, ostensibly to press Tehran about its destabilizing activities in the region, which are putting the nuclear deal at risk.

But to some in Washington, the meeting amounted to a show of unity between Europe and Iran — and of defiance toward the United States. There were images of a smiling Zarif, seated among smiling European officials, followed by a parade of statements in favor of the deal.

"I don't think anybody has so far produced a better alternative," said the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. "The Iran nuclear deal makes the world safer. European partners were unanimous today in our determination to preserve the deal and tackle Iran's disruptive behavior."

The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said, "The deal is working — it is delivering on its main goal, which means keeping the Iranian nuclear program in check and under close surveillance."

In a phone call, President Emmanuel Macron of France also urged Trump not to scrap the deal. Macron "reaffirmed France's determination to see the agreement strictly enforced and the importance for all of its signatories to abide by it," his office said in a statement.

Privately, some White House officials complained about the phone call with Macron, which they said could have provoked Trump. Others said the diplomatic meeting in Brussels was similarly ill-conceived, and they expressed frustration that the legislative efforts in Congress were not progressing quickly enough.

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting.