'Decertifying' Iran deal, Trump to propose new, unilateral terms

Decertification will prompt an expedited, 60-day congressional review period, in which lawmakers may choose to slap nuclear sanctions back on Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday will ask Congress to pass "trigger" legislation that would impose new terms on parties to the Iran deal, hoping to force a new round of negotiations over the two-year-old nuclear accord.
Trump will make the request of Congress in a speech to the nation on Friday afternoon, when he will also announce his decision to "decertify" that Iran's actions under the nuclear agreement have been proportional to US sanctions relief.
Decertification will prompt an expedited, 60-day congressional review period, in which lawmakers may choose to slap nuclear sanctions back on Iran. But the Trump administration will not ask Congress to do that– a move that would be "tantamount to walking out" of the deal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Thursday.
Instead, Trump will propose an amendment to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA), a US law that provides Congress with oversight powers over the nuclear pact, brokered that same year by the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and Iran.
The amendment would "put in place some very firm trigger points" for the reimposition of sanctions, Tillerson said.
Those triggers, if passed by Congress, could unilaterally snap back nuclear-related sanctions on Iran over its continued ballistic missile work– a component of Iran's weapons program that was fiercely debated during the 2013-2015 nuclear talks and was ultimately left out of the deal entirely.
It would also make those sanctions triggers permanent, with the intended effect of negating some of the expiration dates– or "sunset clauses"– built into the nuclear accord. Those clauses are of particular concern to the US, France and Britain, which believe that the deal provides Iran with a pathway to a nuclear weapons capability.
Decertification calls on Congress to consider "qualifying legislation" on Iran sanctions and provides the Senate with a simple 50-vote threshold for their passage. But the amendment Trump will propose does not amount to qualifying legislation, and will instead require 60 votes– a far higher bar for the White House to pass, as it will require Democratic backing.
US President Donald Trump says Iran has not lived up to spirit of nuclear deal, October 5, 2017. (Reuters)
"​There should be a lot of ground for bipartisan support," said National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, who briefed Republican congressional leadership of Trump's strategy on Wednesday. "We think we have a real opportunity to impart a legislative remedy​." But Tillerson offered less optimism.
"We don't want to suggest this is a slam dunk on the Hill," the secretary of state said. "We know its not." But he noted that GOP leadership seemed enthused by the strategy, and that minority leaders were not "outright rejecting" the amendment out of hand.
Tillerson acknowledged that Iran is unlikely to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But he thinks that Iran and other nations party to the deal might be willing to negotiate an addendum to it.
The INARA amendment is Trump's effort to get Congress on board with that diplomatic effort, Tillerson said.
"Iran could just say, well we're not interested in talking," Tillerson told reporters. "That'll tell us something."
Jostling over the amendment has already begun. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who authored the review act, told reporters on Friday that he had a hand in crafting the White House amendment to his bill and had checked with State Department counsel on whether or not it would breach terms of the nuclear accord. Federal lawyers said it would not.
But Ben Rhodes, former President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and one of the architects of deal, disagreed.
"We'd be violating the deal," Rhodes told reporters in a dueling conference call. "The clear line is passing legislation that gets into the space of the JCPOA."
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a hawk on Iran, also helped draft the amendment, his office said on Friday.
"The legislation would not conflict with the JCPOA upon passage," Corker and Cotton said in a joint statement. "Instead, it would set conditions that halt Iran’s nuclear program and provide a window of time for firm diplomacy and pressure to work."
One leading Democratic voice on foreign policy, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, questioned the administration's strategy in a statement on Friday. "The president’s plan doesn't make sense," said the Democratic lawmaker, who in 2015 opposed the original nuclear agreement. "Negotiating additional terms to the nuclear deal requires a coalition of international partners, not unilateral congressional action."