It was 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 campaign, President Trump denounced the agreement as “the worst deal ever,” and Vice President 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 a review of the nuclear deal, Mr. Tillerson said, “we will meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.”
Hours earlier, late on Tuesday night, Mr. Tillerson sent a terse letter to Speaker Paul D. 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 interagency 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 nonplused. Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican 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 program are benign.”
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration appeared to be preparing a tougher line against Iran.
“Secretary Tillerson made clear that regardless of…