November 3, 2017

Cotton-Corker Bill Still Up in the Air

Washington, DC – On Oct. 13, President Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in what many viewed as the first step towards tearing up the agreement. Instead of reimposing sanctions and violating the deal himself, however, Trump called on Congress to dictate new terms for the nuclear accord via legislation and vowed to terminate the deal if Congress did not do so. Notably, Trump did not call on Congress to snap back nuclear sanctions under expedited procedure triggered by his recertification. Instead, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bob Corker (R-TN) began circulating legislation in line with Trump’s vision that would eventually snap back nuclear sanctions and end U.S. participation in the deal even if Iran maintains full compliance with the agreement. Yet, three weeks after Trump’s big speech, the Cotton-Corker legislation has yet to be introduced.

At a conference hosted by the Ploughshares Fund last week, a former official and two Senators warned against legislation undercutting the JCPOA. Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, said the Cotton-Corker bill “would outline a series of automatic triggers for re-imposing nuclear-related sanctions that were suspended under the JCPOA in the event that Iran engages in certain types of behavior that we don’t like, but isn’t technically proscribed by the Iran deal.” Mr. Kahl followed by saying the Cotton-Corker legislation will be seen as a “unilateral effort to renegotiate the terms of the deal,” by the other parties to the deal.

Flipping the situation on its head, Kahl asked the audience what the U.S. response would be to Iran suddenly declaring that they would pull out of the agreement if the U.S. didn’t withdraw its forces from the region, citing a “threat to regional peace and security.” Kahl stated that such a demand would rightly be perceived as a threat to violate the deal by Iran. “It’s an important thought experiment because that’s exactly how the rest of the world will perceive the current Corker-Cotton legislation,” Kahl concluded.

Sen. Van Hollen (D-MD) also weighed in on the Cotton-Corker legislation, stating during his address that if unchanged from the current “bootleg” copies that have been circulating on Capitol Hill, the legislation “will essentially be calling for the violation of the agreement because they would be calling for number one, imposing the Iran sanctions on non-nuclear related conduct, and number two, they would be extending the sunset provisions that had been negotiated in the bill.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated her trepidation about legislative efforts to undercut the JCPOA. “With respect to Iran, it’ll take 60 votes in the Senate to make a change. I am hopeful that those votes are not there, and I am hopeful that we will stand by this agreement.”

The two Senators also warned about the threat of Trump following through on his threat to terminate the JCPOA. “If you tear up an agreement, you sunset everything right now,” Sen. Van Hollen stated. “Iran would have no obligation to do anything more under the agreement.” He continued, saying that the U.S. would be isolating itself if it walked away from the JCPOA, and that dealing with a non-nuclear Iran on regional issues is better than dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Feinstein warned, “If the United States cannot continue to be part of a multilateral agreement – which for sure takes Iran out of the nuclear business for a long, long time – how will North Korea ever believe us in any agreement we might make with them?”

This week, Tess Bridgeman – former Special Assistant to President Obama and Deputy Legal Adviser to the National Security Council – also warned against the Cotton-Corker bill in Foreign Policy, saying “Our most fundamental commitment in the JCPOA is that we will continue to suspend our nuclear-related sanctions, and not impose new ones, so long as Iran continues to abide by its nuclear commitments, as verified by international monitors. By Corker and Cotton’s own description, their bill would automatically re-impose our nuclear sanctions even if Iran is continuing to comply with its commitments — this violates the deal.”

While there appears to be little momentum behind the Cotton-Corker legislation, particularly among Democratic Senators, negotiations reportedly continue behind the scenes.

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