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Obama Administration Races To Shore Up Iran Nuclear Deal


Happy Thanksgiving. Congressional Republicans are urging the Obama administration not to loosen sanctions on Iran during Obama's last two months in office. That's because President-elect Donald Trump wants to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how Obama might still try to strengthen a deal that is central to his foreign policy legacy.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the Treasury Department issued a license this week to the European consortium Airbus to sell planes to Iran, officials were quick to point out that this was in the pipeline for a while. White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the U.S. is just upholding its end of the bargain in a nuclear deal with Iran.


JOSH EARNEST: The kinds of actions that we have taken in implementing the deal are the kinds of actions that have had to go through a rather extended process. So I can confirm for you that I do not anticipate any actions being taken that were initiated after the election solely in response to Mr. Trump's victory.

KELEMEN: He argues the deal is working and keeping Iran's nuclear program in check. Critics say the White House has gone too far to help Iran reap the economic benefits of the deal. House Speaker Paul Ryan and two other Republicans are calling on President Obama not to take any further action to bolster international investment in Iran. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says the Trump transition officials now at the Treasury Department will also be on the lookout.

MARK DUBOWITZ: I expect the Trump transition team to be watching the Obama administration like a hawk and having certainly quiet conversations with administration officials signaling that a Trump administration won't countenance any unilateral action from the Obama administration in the waning days and weeks.

KELEMEN: Besides, Dubowitz says, any further steps that look like concessions to Iran could backfire, playing into the hands of those who want to rip up the deal.

DUBOWITZ: You know, the debate is going to take place between the 30-yard lines but to people who want to dismantle the deal on day one and those who believe that there is still an opportunity to enforce the deal aggressively and build strong leverage to negotiate a follow-on agreement.

KELEMEN: So what could the Obama administration do? A former Treasury Department official, Elizabeth Rosenberg, has this advice.

ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: Strong outreach to Congress to make the case to those members of Congress certainly who supported the deal and possibly those who didn't support the deal but who recognize that it would be very damaging to undo it at this point.

KELEMEN: Congress is expected to send to the White House soon legislation that would renew the current package of sanctions against Iran. Rosenberg, who's now with the Center for a New American Security, says the Obama administration may not like it, but it could be worse.

ROSENBERG: They see it as unhelpful and unfriendly, but considering where Congress has been on sanctions towards Iran, this is a much more moderate approach than many of the pieces of legislation they have discussed and passed in the last couple of years that would have been much more hostile and that would have sought to directly, overtly break up the deal.

KELEMEN: In the meantime, she expects her former colleagues in the Treasury Department to continue to issue licenses to boost trade that is currently allowed under the Iran nuclear deal. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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