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.
Now that US President Donald Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — despite all evidence to the contrary — much attention has been focused on the reverberations in Washington and within the Transatlantic alliance. No less important, however, are the emerging policy ramifications in Tehran. Contrary to assertions at home and conjecture abroad, Trump’s Iran policy may in the long run strengthen rather than weaken President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in several key ways.
First, Iranian stakeholders are now more united as a result of US threats, thereby solidifying the executive branch within Iran’s political system. Trump’s choice to decertify has reinforced the strategic vision offered by Rouhani and agreed to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the 2013 presidential election: to maintain unity on policy toward the United States, (nuclear) deal or no deal. This vision was predicated on eliminating the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005 to 2013. Whatever their differences, Khamenei needs Rouhani and his technocrats to repair the damage wrought by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani needs Khamenei to provide political protection while he does so.
Since entering office four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic. The infighting will not subside anytime soon, but the survival instinct of most elites has kicked in, helping them recognize the need to deepen the middle ground that Rouhani has been cultivating. In nine months, the Trump administration has managed to spur a level of political unity and rally-around-the-flag nationalism not seen in Iran since the immediate aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s subsequent invasion.
Rouhani may also be strengthened because such unity has been a linchpin in the approach he has been advocating for the past 15 years and outlined in his 2011 memoir, “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.” In the book, he defends using that approach during his stewardship of Iran’s 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations with Europe because all decisions were made by consensus, with Khamenei’s endorsement. He criticizes subsequent negotiating teams for repeatedly miscalculating and abandoning his strategy of internal consensus-building and blames them for the polarization in Iran’s foreign and domestic politics that threaten to destabilize the country. Each of Rouhani’s criticisms have proven true — and Khamenei approved each of those mistakes, reinforcing Rouhani’s political standing.
Second, Trump’s hostile approach may help shore up Rouhani’s domestic standing because it vindicates the strategy employed to achieve Iran’s national interests both from 2003 to 2005 and 2013 to the present. In his memoir, Rouhani says his approach toward handling the nuclear dispute had three facets: cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address the violations noted in Iran’s nuclear file, engaging with Europe to improve relations and neutralize American aggression and pursuing both of those objectives to allow for Iranian nuclear scientists to continue different aspects of their work.
Rouhani’s strategy worked in the early 2000s. It helped thwart the threat of war after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and his team successfully prevented the referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. An updated version of the same strategy has proven successful since Rouhani’s election in 2013. The JCPOA removed Iran’s nuclear file from Chapter VII in the UN Security Council without the country being bombed — a first — and it appears to be serving as a bulwark against Trump’s aggression given that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the UN, the European Union and the IAEA all currently oppose US policy.
Rouhani sold his nuclear strategy to Khamenei by arguing that Tehran’s openness to negotiations and compromise would put the onus on Washington to accept the Islamic Republic accordingly. In turn, Khamenei sold the nuclear talks inside and outside the government by arguing that such engagement means the onus will be on the United States to compromise.
Thus, Rouhani — and by extension, Khamenei — is vindicated regardless of whether the JCPOA remains intact. If it dies, neither Khamenei nor the Iranian people will blame Rouhani, because he can accurately pin the blame on Washington. Conversely, neither Rouhani nor the Iranian people will blame Khamenei for the same reason.
Finally, while the long-term impact may be to strengthen Rouhani, it should be noted that Trump’s bombast might complicate the Iranian president’s agenda in the short run. US escalation of tensions will likely securitize the atmosphere in Iran, thereby slowing down political and economic development — similarly to 2005-2013, when tensions with the United States spiked. At that time, key stakeholders justified empowering the military-security apparatus as a necessary instrument to counter threats to the Islamic Republic’s survival. As senior Iranian officials told Al-Monitor back then, Tehran invested more money into security and intelligence operations, with such budget allocations ballooning and new projects proliferating. Such a thing would likely not have happened under normal circumstances, as demonstrated by how Rouhani successfully shifted the Iranian state’s priority to domestic economic stabilization during his first term. However, in the long run, it would be an exaggeration to associate securitization with Rouhani being a lame duck. His domestic agenda may be curtailed, but that’s in large part because it’s now more difficult for him to argue internally that additional funding for security purposes is unnecessary.
Thus, the biggest loser right now is not Rouhani, but rather the Iranian people. Trump shifting the onus back to the United States could allow Iranian officials to successfully blame foreign bogeymen for the Islamic Republic’s economic shortcomings — and divert the public’s attention from the government’s role in causing them. While disillusionment among ordinary Iranians will grow, Trump’s bluster has ensured that most vitriol will be directed at decision-makers in Washington rather than Tehran — precisely because Rouhani’s strategy has succeeded.
For nearly four decades, the United States has tried to isolate Iran. But after nine months of Trump in office, it is the United States that seems isolated. Decertifying Iranian compliance with the JCPOA is only the latest instance of Tehran capitalizing on Washington’s self-inflicted wounds. Rouhani has been proven right that Iran and his own political standing are more secure thanks to less bombast, deeper unity, better negotiators, more diplomacy and a realistic assessment of the Islamic Republic’s policy strengths and weakness both at home and abroad. If Trump forges ahead with his confrontational posturing, he will likely empower rather than weaken the very politicians he’s trying to undermine.
Washington, (D.C.) – “What the President is telling Congress is ‘let’s violate the deal together or I’ll violate it alone,” said Robert Malley, discussing President Trump’s speech announcing the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and vowing to terminate the accord if it is not amended.
NIAC hosted a panel for Congressional staff following Trump’s announcement to assess the impact on the future of the deal. The panelists included Malley, Vice President of Policy at the International Crisis Group as well as a key figure in negotiating the accord while serving in the Obama Administration; John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute; moderator Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent for Politico; and Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council.
Malley asserted that Congress should not follow the President’s advice, alluding to a pending legislation being introduced by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AK) that would automatically reimpose nuclear sanctions if Iran does not take steps that go beyond the nuclear deal. “The legislation that the administration is pushing and that some in Congress are supporting… is a violation of the deal, and I think the real test for Congress is to make that distinction clear,” said Malley.
Parsi agreed with Malley, saying that Trump is “very specifically looking for things that will ensure that the Iranians will say no to [the deal].” Trump is giving Congress two options regarding the future survival of the deal, Parsi said, and in both instances he is ensuring the deal fails.
Malley was also quick to point out that the agreement will not be changed through the administration attempting to use their European allies and others to pressure Iran to change the terms of the deal, highlighting the European powers’ outspoken support of continuing this deal. He insisted that “the only way that you could have a supplemental deal is by implementing this one in good faith.”
“I actually disagree with the notion that we need to constantly have the assumption, and the presumption that Iran is just doggedly in pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” argued John Glaser of CATO. Glaser raised concerns that there is a biased perception on both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S. that Iran is single-mindedly pursuing a nuclear weapon, arguing that Iran has, in fact, made the decision to engage with the world by trading more extensively with Europe. Glaser went further to contend that none of Iran’s regional behavior poses a direct threat to the United States. “Only under the most expansive definition of U.S. national interests can you even plausibly frame these issues as being a threat,” he insisted. “Iran’s regional behaviors are only a threat to the United States to the extent that we continue to insist on sticking our nose in a region whose strategic importance has been massively overstated for generations.”
Parsi rounded out the remarks by highlighting how the U.S. stance is empowering hardliners in Iran at the expense of moderates. Hardliners had opposed negotiations and claimed that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted to hold up its end of any bargain, while moderates pushed for direct talks that carried significant political risk. The decision by Trump to decertify, Parsi said, has caused a “rally around the flag effect” that has forced moderates to more closely align with hardliners in order to guard against the embarrassment of the U.S. reneging on the accord.
In his closing remarks, Malley addressed the opponents of the deal who argue they can get a better agreement, saying: “I ask all of you to put yourselves in the shoes of an Iranian, why would they accept…this choice, which basically they can only say no to? It’s an offer they can only refuse.”
Congress now bears the responsibility for the future of the Iran deal and it will largely be reviewing it through the dishonest framing President Trump set during his decertification speech last week. Last week it was also announced that robust sanctions will be levied against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and they are now labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The combination of these policies places the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in great jeopardy, alienates the Iranian population from the U.S., and risks driving the U.S. towards international isolation at best, and potentially a costly conflict with Iran. Below you will find the three most troubling falsehoods that President Trump asserted during his speech.
1. “The Iranian regime has also intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body tasked with inspections, has not made a single complaint about Iran’s cooperation with inspections. In fact, the IAEA has consistently confirmed in its reports that based on its own independent evidence Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. However, this did not stop Ambassador Nikki Haley from visiting the IAEA headquarters in August and demanding to know why the IAEA had not sought inspection of Iran’s military sites.
“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” said an IAEA official in reaction to Haley’s call for inspections. Meanwhile, on the same day last week that President Trump accused Iran of intimidating international inspectors, Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said that Iran is subjected to the “most robust nuclear verification regime” adding that “the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented.”
It is also important to note that President Trump’s decertification announcement flies in the face not only of our allies and the IAEA, but of his own generals. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, and Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, have publicly stated that they agree with the IAEA that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to remain in the deal.
2. “In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people.”
Any policy that leads to the disintegration of the JCPOA cannot stand in solidarity with the people of Iran who at the height of sanctions could not even obtain adequate cancer treatment. Sanctions have given hardliners in Iran a near monopoly on the economy while at the same time everyday Iranians suffer. In addition to undermining the JCPOA, President Trump has issued three separate travel bans that prevent Iranians from visiting their family in the U.S. With each successive iteration of the ban the impact on Iranians with zero connection to the regime has become increasingly disproportionate. President Trump’s assertion that he stands with the Iranian people only highlights his willful ignorance of the situation everyday Iranians find themselves in. Polling conducted inside Iran also suggests that approval for the U.S. has sharply decreased since implementation day while support for Germany, Russia, and China (countries that invest in Iran) has increased. The Trump administration is managing to alienate one of the most pro-West populations in the Middle East.
3. “The execution of our strategy begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
President Trump’s announcement of sanctions on the IRGC and an SDGT designation places U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in grave danger. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged this in a closed-door press conference on October 12th when he said “we have considered that there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army, so to speak, of a country where that then puts in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield that then triggers certain actions…” The IRGC’s Major General Ali Jafari has warned that if the IRGC is sanctioned or labeled a terrorist organization then it will reciprocate by treating U.S. troops in the region as if they are ISIS. President Trump has taken the U.S. down a path that undermines the fight against ISIS without any tangible security benefit. He has also placed troops in the Middle East at risk of becoming victims of escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran.
Perhaps most ironically, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have elevated the status of the IRGC within Iran and forced moderates to publicly appear in support of the IRGC. During President Rouhani’s election campaign he criticized the role that the IRGC plays within Iran in an unprecedented speech. But since President Trump’s rhetoric and designation the IRGC and the Rouhani administration have formed a united front—at least in public— against what they perceive as American threats. This will prove an impediment to the Rouhani administration achieving its human rights and anti-corruption goals, as well as warmer relations with the West.
Trump has undermined the JCPOA, punished the Iranian people, and empowered the IRGC
Through decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, a designation of the IRGC, and an equally harmful deployment of incendiary rhetoric, President Trump has accomplished three things. First, he has placed U.S. security at risk and turned forward deployed U.S. soldiers into potential pawns in a conflicted between the U.S. and IRGC. Second, he has discredited reformists and centrists inside Iran who took a political gamble on supporting the JCPOA with the U.S. Lastly, he has given the IRGC and hardliners in Iran the greatest public relations win they could have hoped for.
As Donald Trump considers whether to tear up the Iran deal and escalate tensions with Iran, some in Congress are pushing for an approach focused on U.S.-led regime change. At a recent House hearing, Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) questioned why previously frozen revenues returned to Iran under the Iran deal could not have instead be used to back various Iranian minorities, mentioning the Azeris, Kurds, and Baloch.
“For those of us who really want peace in Iran, doesn’t it behoove us not to just give, free up, a hundred billion dollars for the regime that oppresses its people but instead to try and help those interests, those various nationality groups that don’t like the mullahs?” he asked. Rohrabacher, who has introduced legislation aimed at funding ethnic separatists inside Iran, gained notoriety in the Iranian-American community earlier this year when he said ISIS terrorist attacks in Iran should be seen as a good thing.
The support of regime change policies by lawmakers like Rohrabacher may indeed be a reflection of the Trump administration’s prospective plans for Iran. Secretary of State Tillerson said that the U.S. will “work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government,” in a Senate hearing earlier this year. In addition to assertions that the Iran deal has only served to fund Iranian backed-militias and the recent report that Trump plans to decertify the deal on October 15, the U.S. risks completely departing from diplomacy and returning to old interventionist policies.
Rohrabacher’s recent comments also point to an ongoing criticism of the Iran deal because it released frozen Iranian oil revenues. Some lawmakers claim the funds have significantly propped up various Iranian-backed militias in the region. However, Michael Knights of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy cast doubt on those claims in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Knight pointed out that many of these proxy forces’ operations were very economical and that “in Iraq it is run on absolute shoestring.” At the same hearing, Aram Nerguizian of the Strategy Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested Hezbollah did not benefit from the Iran deal either, saying, “you have an organization that has relied on a sustained network around the world for its financing operations” and has little need for increased Iranian funding.”
The notion that unfrozen assets have greatly contributed to increased militia activity also haven’t meshed with other analyses. Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated in another committee hearing in July that “Some of the money that they have gained has gone to the military. The preponderance of the money has gone to economic development and infrastructure.” Not only did Iran owe nearly $60 billion of its freed assets to foreign creditors, but after years of crippling economic sanctions Iran’s infrastructure is still in desperate need of improvement, and it is estimated that $100 billion per year is needed between 2015-2025 in order to rebuild. President Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promise of economic improvement means that between infrastructure development, job creation, and encouraging foreign investment amid the uncertainty of sanctions following the election of Trump, there is relatively little funding left for any dramatic escalation of military assets or proxy forces. However, as the Iran deal faces potential destabilization as Trump announces his decision on Sunday, this line of criticism from the deal’s opponents will likely continue, regardless of the facts.
“We need to know what we will do in advance, and that includes potentially striking (Iran) in their homeland,” said James Jeffrey, Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testifying on U.S. policy towards Iran at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week. Jeffrey was supportive of a policy of pushing back against Iran’s non-nuclear activities, though acknowledged that Iran typically responds to escalation with escalation, hence his recommendation of being ready to strike Iran on its own territory.
Critics of the accord were out in force at the hearing ahead of Trump’s decision to refuse to certify the agreement, but many lawmakers are so far not having it.
“I think we should wait and see what President Trump says but I think we could rewrite the conditions of the deal,” argued David Albright, a major critic of the Iran deal from the Institute for Science and International Security.
“You think the Congress of the United States has the ability to unilaterally change the terms or meaning of terms in an international agreement?” responded Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) to Albright. “You don’t need to answer that question. The answer is of course not.”
With opponents of the nuclear deal wavering on snapping back sanctions to kill the accord unilaterally, the Trump administration and opponents of the accord are now urging that Congress pass legislation to effectively issue an ultimatum to Iran, as well as Europe and the other parties to the agreement, to amend the deal.
However, even Congressional opponents of the deal appear inclined to stick with it. “As flawed as the deal was, I believe we must enforce the hell out of it,” began Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) in his opening statement, effectively opposing a unilateral snapback of nuclear sanctions following Trump’s expected certification.
“Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming as our allies have recognized,” said Royce (R-CA), who is also championing new non-nuclear Iran sanctions legislation as an alternative to snapping back nuclear sanctions.
However, Royce appeared open to efforts to renegotiate the accord, echoing the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC that opposes the Iran deal and is lobbying Congress to eliminate sunsets in the agreement. Many observers view “renegotiation” as another means to violate and terminate the accord.
Jake Sullivan, a former nuclear negotiator and policy adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign, warned that an attempt to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal could lead to a collapse of the deal. According to Sullivan, if “he (Trump) decides, as I think as some have suggested, I’m just gonna unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal myself and I think that would be a way, a sure way to end up collapsing the deal over time, without the rest of the world joining us and then re-imposing pressure.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who originally opposed the deal, warned against pulling out and collapsing the deal. “If we walked away from the agreement tomorrow, if the president pulled us out of the JCPOA, those sunsets would effectively drop from a decade to a day.” Such a move would leave the U.S. with two nuclear crisis on its hands, both Iran and North Korea, Deutch said.
The panelist Charles Wald, former U.S. Air Force general and co-chair of The Gemunder Center Iran Task Force suggested that, despite IAEA reporting indicating that Iran is complying with its commitments, he was certain Iran was in violation. “I would be 99.9% sure Iran’s cheating on the deal,” said Wald, claiming that the IAEA is not allowed into Iran’s military sites.
Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) pointed out the lack of evidence, saying that Wald’s statement “is 99% pure speculation and speculation without fact sir, is very dangerous.”
Sullivan rebutted Wald’s claims, noting that the JCPOA explicitly states that if the IAEA has reason to believe that there is illicit nuclear activity at any site in Iran, they must be allowed access. Sullivan said he had no reason to believe from the time that the JCPOA was instated that the IAEA could not gain access to military sites. “In the last two years, the United States actually hasn’t gone to the IAEA and presented a particular military site and said ‘I want to get access to that.’”
Trump’s Iran speech sets the Iran nuclear deal, which is working and supported by his own national security team, firmly in the crosshairs. If Congress does not pass deal-killing legislation, Trump has vowed to terminate the accord himself. Such a reckless, foolhardy position openly risks creating a new nuclear crisis and another disastrous war in the Middle East. Yet it is unclear whether legislators will see through Trump’s lies and distortions in order to muster the will to stop him.
There will, undoubtedly, be many twists and turns in the Iran deal debate over the months to come. However, when it comes to U.S. adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the outcome will likely rest on the answers to the following questions.
Will Cotton’s Poison Pill Legislation Pass?
The legislation from Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bob Corker (R-TN) that Trump has called for appears to be a clear-cut violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA not to reimpose nuclear sanctions, as well as to avoid interfering with the normalization of Iran’s economic activities. According to a summary, the legislation would automatically trigger the snapback of nuclear sanctions if Iran’s nuclear program moves beyond the one-year breakout timeline—an estimate of the amount of time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. Those calculations vary. Some deal opponents have put Iran’s breakout time potentially lower than one year now, though others have estimated the breakout to drop below the one-year threshold sometime around the 14th year of the accord.. Either way, in combination with Trump’s reckless decertification, passage of the Cotton-Corker bill would cause a major break with our international allies who would also be vital to any nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Despite these dangers, the bill could prove difficult to stop. As opposed to a straight up-or-down vote on whether to blatantly kill the deal, Cotton’s more convoluted approach to violating the deal may be more palatable to deal opponents and supporters in Congress who continue to worry about Iran’s non-nuclear activities and the eventual sunset of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Those with trepidations should remember that if they go along with Trump, Cotton, and Corker in tanking the deal, those sunsets will begin immediately—and they’ll be stuck with a significant portion of the blame. It would be far preferable to call Trump’s bluff and allow him to fall on his own sword and kill the JCPOA rather than be an accomplice to his crime.
This legislation should be seen in line with other legislation that included poison pills amid nuclear negotiations. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, negotiated between Sens. Corker and Ben Cardin (D-MD), originally included a poison pill that would have required the president to certify that Iran was not supporting terrorism targeting Americans. Failure to do so would have snapped back sanctions under expedited procedure. That certification would have been quite difficult for any president to prove, and it was ultimately stripped out of the bill, setting up passage and the 60-day review period when deal opponents proved unable to muster the votes necessary to kill the deal.
Will Tensions in the Region Reach Boiling Point?
The Trump administration has issued an unprecedented designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization using the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) tag. This decision followed congressional legislation passed in July that encouraged but did not mandate such a designation.
This designation will carry zero additional sanctions consequences for the IRGC, which is already heavily sanctioned. But it could provoke retaliation from IRGC-backed forces operating in close proximity to U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. As a result, the Pentagon has opposed the designation for more than a decade. In February, defense and intelligence officials warned that a separate terrorist designation could “endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State, and would be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.” Those warnings appeared to have delayed a designation for months, though the administration ultimately pulled the trigger on a terror tag.
It is not hard to imagine how such a designation could quickly spiral out of control. Prior to the designation, the IRGC threatened a response. Further, in the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the week, Amb. James Jeffrey warned that the United States should be prepared to respond to Iran’s likely retaliation. According to Jeffrey, that response “includes potentially striking them in their homeland.”
Will Sanctions Snapback Come to a Vote in the Senate?
With the pending introduction of the Cotton-Corker legislation, Congress may abstain from a harmful vote to immediately snap back nuclear sanctions under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. The fact that many fierce deal opponents appear to oppose such a course, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), means that such a vote could be avoided.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a vote. Under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the House of Representatives could pass qualifying legislation snapping back new nuclear sanctions. Only the leadership can introduce qualifying “snap-back” legislation, so it is up to Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to decide whether the House will vote on reinstating the nuclear sanctions. If it passes such a measure, which is quite possible given the chamber’s history of approving Iran sanctions legislation inimical to the nuclear deal, that legislation would bypass Senate committees and head straight to the floor for a vote. If that is the case, only 51 senators would be needed to kill the deal (as opposed to 60 for Cotton-Corker), and it is far from certain that sufficient JCPOA opponents would have the resolve to vote down a bill effectively killing the accord. Further, the prospect of a vote could be used as an attempt to punish Democrats if they abstain from Cotton-Corker.
Although it’s possible there will be no vote, that would require Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to abstain from introducing the legislation. Otherwise, the Senate might face the prospect of a nail-biting vote.
Will Trump Snap Back Sanctions on His Own?
Even if deal-killing sanctions are avoided, Trump himself has now vowed to unilaterally kill the deal. Further, he has already tied himself in a logical knot when it comes to waiving sanctions as required in the future. In order to waive nuclear-related sanctions on Iran—which must happen every few months in order to sustain the deal—the president must certify that doing so is in the vital national security interests of the United States. However, Trump has now decertified the JCPOA on the grounds that continuing sanctions relief under the accord is not in the national security interest, a position counter to his own secretary of defense.
Would Trump argue that the deal is not in the national security interests of the United States and then allow his administration to assert that it is in January to sustain the deal? Perhaps. But it is also possible that Trump will be angered that he is forced to certify his predecessor’s accord once again, which is apparently the major driving force behind decertification to begin with. Hence, even if the worst potential outcome is avoided for now, danger remains on the immediate horizon.