U.S.-European Disagreement Over Iran Nuclear Deal 'Sunset' Clauses Threatens Efforts to Salvage Accord

Iranian flag
Getty Images
March 22, 2018

A disagreement between the U.S. and Europe over how to address the Iran nuclear deal's so-called "sunset" clauses, key restrictions on Tehran's nuclear program that are set to expire in about a decade, could derail ongoing efforts to preserve the accord.

Washington wants to make the nuclear limits on Iran permanent, but the Europeans have refused, arguing that such a demand would effectively be a renegotiation of the deal itself, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Since January, the State Department has been leading discussions with France, Germany, and the U.K. to address President Donald Trump's three main concerns about the nuclear accord, which was signed in 2015: Iran's ballistic missile program, limits on the authority of international inspectors, and the sunset clauses. The chief goal of the U.S.-European talks is to agree on a side deal to address these three issues.

U.S. and European officials involved in the discussions told the Journal that they have made significant progress on ballistic missiles and inspections, but strongly disagree on the sunset provisions.

"I can't predict whether we will reach an agreement with them or not. We have a goal in mind, and we either will reach agreement or we won't," Brian Hook, who leads the State Department's policy planning staff, told reporters on Wednesday.

Recently ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appointed Hook to lead the effort to salvage the nuclear deal.

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Critics of the deal often point to the sunset clauses to argue that the accord is weak and unsustainable in its current form.

Key restrictions on Iran's use, research, and development of centrifuges to enrich uranium, and caps on Iran's uranium enrichment levels, are set to expire between 2026 and 2031.

"One possible way to narrow the gap on the so-called sunset clauses, suggested by people familiar with the talks, would be a European Union-U.S. declaration of a joint policy goal of keeping Iran at a significant distance from the ability to gather enough material for a nuclear weapon," the Journal reported.

Senior Trump administration officials have said that the U.S. could walk away from the nuclear deal if European allies do not close loopholes in the accord that have allowed Tehran to continue sensitive nuclear research and develop advanced ballistic missiles, the Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this month.

Iran has recently undertaken a massive ballistic missile buildup, sparking concerns about the country's ability to target Israel with a missile attack.

Some insiders in the administration, however, have expressed fears that the U.S. is moving away from Trump's original demands and toward the European position. Tillerson's firing last week is directly related to these concerns, according to the Free Beacon. He was fired in part because of his desire to save the Iran deal and actions to ignore Trump's demands that the agreement be fixed or scrapped by Washington.

It is unclear how senior staff changes at the State Department will affect negotiations, although many observers expect the U.S. to take a tougher stance on the agreement with Tillerson gone.

Trump has to decide by a May 12 deadline whether he will extend sanctions relief granted to Iran under the nuclear deal.