NEW YORK – The last time Congress was forced to debate the merits of a nuclear deal brokered between Iran and international powers, a bipartisan majority with Republican and Democratic leadership voted against it. But the debate was legislatively structured to allow lawmakers to vote against the deal without much consequence. The next debate will offer them no such reprieve.
Several administration officials told The Jerusalem Post that US President Donald Trump is leaning towards a strategy of decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord next month under terms outlined by US law – not under those codified by the UN Security Council, or by the agreement itself. The move would rattle an international consensus around the nuclear accord, and launch a new battle in Congress over whether to re-implement a broad, layered sanctions regime on Iran, while technically keeping the US within the agreement until such sanctions are reimposed.
It’s a Goldilocks option for the White House, which vociferously disapproves of the Obama-era nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while instinctual understanding the extensive consequences of scrapping it wholesale. Decertification would provide the president with a bold option without all of the blame associated with unilaterally ending the agreement.
“We should welcome a debate over whether the JCPOA is in US national security interests,” Trump’s envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, told the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month, referring to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 written by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland). “The previous administration set up the deal in a way that denied us that honest and serious debate.”
That 2015 bill required 60 senators to vote against the deal in order to kill it. Ultimately, 42 Democratic senators filibustered the resolution of disapproval, thus allowing its survival.
“Congress could take the opportunity to debate Iran’s support for terrorism, its past nuclear activity, and its massive human rights violations, all of which are called for in Corker-Cardin,” Haley continued. Under the law, should Trump “decertify” Iranian compliance, “Congress then has 60 days to consider whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran. Congress could debate whether the nuclear deal is in fact too big to fail.”
The European Union, France, Britain and Germany – all of which were party to the nuclear talks – are warning the Trump administration against this path, knowing their task will be harder once debate opens up to the entire Congress. Ambassadors from these nations warn they will not take part in any renegotiation.
But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered his meeting with Trump on Monday in New York, his team made clear their priorities and expectations: “Israel hopes that the coming weeks will bring about a dramatic change in the trajectory of that deal that will ultimately either fix it or cancel it,” Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, told guests at his annual Rosh Hashana gathering last week. Privately, Israeli officials highly anticipate what October has in store.
Decertification would prompt a debate among congressional leadership over what sort of bill to put forth in response – one that would put Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) in a bind, given he voted against the JCPOA in 2015.
“The prospects for a bill which reinstates the sanctions as they were pre-JCPOA are much greater if such a bill includes presidential waiver authority,” said Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “especially if there are quiet reassurances from the administration that they will invoke that authority if the Europeans scream.”
Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI who interviewed Haley during her appearance at the think tank, said she expected Congress might reapply “secondary sanctions” on Iran upon decertification – powerful leveraging tools that target non-US entities engaging in sanctioned activities. But any new sanctions legislation would risk killing the nuclear accord, and thus an Iranian bolt to the bomb. Iranian officials point to a provision in the JCPOA that commits Washington to abstain from reimposing old, nuclear-related sanctions.
The US must “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of [the] JCPOA,” the agreement reads.
An anonymously-written white paper floating around Capitol Hill and obtained by The Jerusalem Post
reveals congressional support for this strategy, with caveats.
“Iran’s refusal to allow inspections at key military sites makes it impossible to fully verify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. The regime’s accelerating ballistic missile program violates the JCPOA’s related agreements and, given the proliferation nexus between Iran and North Korea, poses a clear and present danger to US national security,” the document reads.
“If President Trump opts to ‘re-certify’ Iran under the IRNA, the Iranians will feel emboldened to double down on their illicit activities, viewing the president as weak and full of empty bluster,” it continues. “Rogue leaders around the world, including in Pyongyang, will take note – something for which no amount of symbolic sanctions imposed on a few companies or individuals can compensate.”
The paper notes, as Haley did, that decertification would allow the US to remain a party to the 2015 agreement. But it questions then what power decertification would have, without congressional action.
“If the president merely ‘decertifies’ Iran under IRNA and punts to Congress without any plan for additional executive action, the president could look impotent on one of the most important national security threats facing the nation and America would be sending a signal of weakness,” it asserts. “Iran must believe President Trump has the ability and political will to impose a de facto global economic embargo within hours by re-imposing all sanctions lifted under the JCPOA.”
The document, circulating both among both Democratic and Republican congressional offices, notes in its conclusion that Trump faces a challenge building consensus amongst his national security advisers – and in securing the support of those who fear the unknown should he walk down this path.
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