Donald Trump is expected to withdraw his endorsement of the nuclear deal with Iran next week, leaving its survival uncertain and in the hands of a divided Congress.
Adding to the mood of uncertainty hanging over Washington, Trump used a group photograph before a dinner with military leaders and their spouses to warn cryptically that the evening represented “the calm before the storm”.
When asked by reporters what he meant, the president said: “You’ll find out,” leaving it unclear whether he was referring to impending military action, or whether Trump, a former TV reality show host, was simply creating tension for the sake of it.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly declined to clarify Trump’s remarks about “the calm before the storm” on Friday. Speaking to reporters at the White House press briefing, she said “I’m not aware of anything specific that that was in reference to.” But she did cite Iran and North Korea as flashpoints as reporters sought clarification.
The US is in a nuclear standoff with North Korea, and tensions are likely to rise in the Gulf if Trump washes his hands of the nuclear agreement. There is also anticipation in Washington of retaliatory action for the deaths of three Green Berets in an ambush near the Niger-Mali border, believed to have been carried out by Islamic State.
On Friday several media outlets confirmed what has been suspected in Washington and foreign capitals for some time: that Trump will overrule his top national security aides and will not certify the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, on the grounds that it does not serve US security interests.
That would trigger a period of 60 days in which it would be up to a delicately balanced Congress whether to reimpose sanctions. A decision to do so could trigger a collapse of the deal and a return to a tense standoff in the Middle East over the Iranian nuclear programme.
The genesis of Trump’s particular antipathy to Iran is hard to pin down. Before entering office he had been sceptical of Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. But during the 2016 election campaign all his closest foreign policy advisors, such as Michael Flynn, shared a worldview that portrays Iran as an uniquely malign actor in the Middle East and beyond. After the election, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were successful in capturing the ear of Trump and his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner.
“The Iranian regime supports terrorism and exports violence and chaos across the Middle East,” Trump said at a White House meeting of US military leaders.
“That is why we must put an end to Iran’s continued aggression and nuclear ambitions,” he added. “You will be hearing about Iran very shortly.”
The statement was made as he sat alongside senior security officials, the most senior of whom have said repeatedly that Iran is abiding by the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The defence secretary, James Mattis, said this week that staying with the deal, under which Iran accepted strict curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, was in US national security interests.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Joseph Dunford, recently said that pulling out of the multilateral deal, which was signed by some of Washington’s closest allies, would affect US credibility and could hinder its ability to strike security agreements in the future.
Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser, HR McMaster, are both thought to have advised Trump not to withhold certification. The European signatories to the deal – the UK, France and Germany – have urged Trump to uphold it, and are focusing their energies on lobbying Congress not to reimpose sanctions, which could prove fatal to the agreement.
The British embassy in Washington took the unusual step of lobbying for the deal on Twitter with a graphic showing its achievements. From the European perspective, the collapse of the agreement would not only have a substantial security impact, bringing another Middle East conflict closer, but could also have economic repercussions, forcing European companies such as Airbus, Total and the British solar power company Quercus to choose between doing business in Iran and the US.
Business leaders who gathered for an Iran-Europe forum in Switzerland this week said they were prepared to do everything possible to salvage the deal in the event of a US withdrawal.
A senior executive at a European multinational company, who asked to remain anonymous, said he expected the US president to decertify the deal but he believed that would not amount to the end of the agreement.
“There is a lot of serious diplomacy by Europeans at all levels, from prime ministers to policymakers, to make sure the agreement would survive and there are talks of retaliatory legislation or protective legislations like the ones in place in the early 2000s,” the executive said.
The non-certification of the Iran deal threatens to trigger a second nuclear standoff at a time when the US is already immersed in one with North Korea.
That crisis has escalated recently with Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, a series of intermediate and intercontinental missile tests, and a war of words between the US president and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
An expert on the North Korean weapons programme, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, expressed alarm that Trump’s warning of a coming storm could have been interpreted by the US’s adversaries in ways the president never considered.
“This is the kind of idle threat that, made at the wrong time, could trigger an unexpected escalation on the Korean peninsula,” Lewis tweeted. “Please stop.”
• Additional reporting by Saeed Kamali Dehghan in Zurich and Ben Jacobs in Washington
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