Republicans pull back on Iran deal legislation in setback for Trump

Democrats and Republicans both seem intent on satisfying Trump's appetite for action, cognizant that their failure to pass anything by the new year will likely incur his wrath and blame.

Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS)
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran
WASHINGTON – A top Senate Republican is shelving draft legislation that would have triggered nuclear-related sanctions back on Iran over its ballistic missile activity, acknowledging it cannot garner the 50 votes required for passage and would ostracize foreign allies, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continues to work with members of his own party, Democrats, European envoys and the Trump administration hoping to construct legislation that will send a message of toughness to Tehran while keeping the nuclear accord intact. But the amendment he initially previewed one month ago with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), alongside President Donald Trump’s national address on Iran policy, will not advance as planned.
It is a setback for the Trump administration, which in its rollout of a comprehensive policy approach to Iran characterized Corker and Cotton’s bill as a “legislative remedy” to its concerns with the Iran nuclear deal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson requested a vote on it within 90 days.
Corker Discusses Senate Consideration of Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015. (YouTube/senatorcorker)
Thirty days into that time frame, Trump administration officials have not yet engaged with any of the moderate Democrats they would need to pass relevant legislation. They have not yet brought on board their European allies, who were represented in Washington this week lobbying lawmakers against taking any dramatic action. And foreign policy leadership in the House of Representatives is entirely in the dark on what’s to come. One top Republican aide characterized the talks as three-way negotiations among Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and European diplomats, with the president and his aides taking a back seat.
Corker and Cotton’s legislation would have amended the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act – itself co-authored by Corker back in 2015 – to effectively extend provisions of the Iran nuclear deal indefinitely in the eyes of US law. The amendment would have instituted triggers for US sanctions on Iran that had been lifted by the deal, targeting not only Iran’s obligations under the accord but also matters not addressed in the deal itself.
Republicans believe that Iran’s ballistic missile work is inherently tied to its nuclear program, as these delivery vehicles are uniquely designed to carry nuclear payloads. But the six world powers that negotiated the deal with Iran – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – left ballistic missiles out of the agreement after Iran argued the technology was in fact a conventional weapons system.
Immediately upon its public release, the Corker-Cotton amendment was roundly condemned by European governments and Democrats as an effort to unilaterally renegotiate the closed, two-year-old agreement.
“Corker has now admitted that he has shelved it, because it was a non-starter,” said one top Senate aide intimately involved with the negotiations. “ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] won’t be a part of it, relevant to any JCPOA legislation.” The top aide was referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the 2015 nuclear accord.
US President Donald Trump says Iran has not lived up to spirit of nuclear deal, October 5, 2017. (Reuters)
Corker’s office did not deny claims that he has moved on from the amendment: “Sen. Corker continues to talk with Sen. [Ben] Cardin [D-Maryland], Sen. Cotton, and the administration about the appropriate path forward,” said the chairman’s communications director.
But Cotton's communications director said that claims they had moved on from legislation that included automatic triggers are "categorically inaccurate."
"Senator Cotton and Senator Corker are very much still working together on a bill that reflects the same framework laid out last month," she said.
Republican and Democratic aides both say that a bipartisan consensus has formed against taking any legislative action that would materially breach the agreement, or that would institute a structure sure to trigger a breach of the agreement. Democrats are specifically opposed to any linkage of Iran’s ICBMs with the nuclear deal, or the adoption of any automatic triggers that would impose new sanctions without executive order or congressional debate.
On the Hill this week, the European Union’s top foreign policy envoy, Federica Mogherini, said she witnessed this consensus in her meetings.
“We are exchanging views with the legislators on the need to make sure, before a bill is presented, that its contents do not represent a violation of the agreement,” she said. “I got clear indications that the intention is to keep the United States in compliance with the agreement.”
Lawmakers are working against two time lines, both of which may prove arbitrary.
The first is a formal 60-day review period legally prompted by Trump’s decision not to “certify” Iran’s performance in the nuclear deal last month. The law requests Congress now consider “qualifying legislation” that would reimpose sanctions on Iran. But no action is required, and no party – neither Hill Republicans nor the Trump administration – wants to take this path.
The second timeline is a 90-day period proposed by Tillerson, motivated by the president’s desire to avoid publicly “certifying” Iran’s compliance to the nuclear deal every 90 days – another legal requirement. But the Senate parliamentarian – the official adviser to the chamber on the interpretation of its standing rules and procedures – has been asked by Republican lawmakers whether, after decertifying once in October, Trump will have to take action yet again in two months’ time.
“It’s not clear under the law if one non-certification clears him for future certifications, or if he’ll have to issue a certification decision again,” one aide said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this report.
Despite the “lack of paper,” or progress, Democrats and Republicans both seem intent on satisfying Trump’s appetite for action, cognizant that their failure to pass anything by the new year will likely incur his wrath and blame.
In the words of one Democratic aide, the president’s threat to pull out of the deal wholesale absent legislative action “does have some weight, in that Congress does not want to be the president’s scapegoat here.
“There’s a bipartisan sense that they want to approach INARA together,” the aide said, referring to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. “But it’s the administration’s job to bring Europe along."
Three congressmen said that the entire negotiation comes down to Corker and his Democratic counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin, who last month affirmed that a bipartisan consensus had formed against any action that would torpedo the nuclear deal and harm the transatlantic alliance.
Legislative fixes to INARA will have to proceed through that committee, where Corker sets hearings and votes.
But Cotton and his allies are still insisting on tough action that shows Iran the US will not accept the nuclear deal as it is. And this faction of the Republican Caucus is warning against a legislative approach that ultimately legitimizes the nuclear accord – the very opposite effect Trump was hoping for when he threw the fate of the deal to Congress last month.
“It’s like when [then-secretary of state] John Kerry said no deal is better than a bad deal,” said one Republican consultant closely working with Cotton’s team. “In this case, no legislation is better than bad legislation.”