WASHINGTON: After Donald Trump placed the fate of the Iran nuclear deal in the hands of lawmakers Friday, Congress may use its position as arbiter to ratchet up pressure on Tehran.
The question is whether they can do so without killing off the 2015 accord.
In his unveiling of an aggressive new strategy against the Islamic republic, Trump will “decertify” the nuclear pact under a US law, but stop short of withdrawing outright.
Lawmakers will be left in the delicate position of seeking to exert fresh pressure on Iran, particularly over its continued missile development and regional aggression that Trump said violates “the spirit of the agreement,” without scuppering it altogether.
“If there is a non-certification, the Hill is the next battlefield,” said one Western diplomat. “Many senators are looking for a middle way, but they don’t want to kill the agreement.”
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally titled, was crafted over 21 months of hair-pulling negotiations.
Signed by Iran, Germany, and UN Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, the JCPOA curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Trump could have scuppered the deal himself, by declining to waive the sanctions when they came up for review in September.
Instead, Trump’s decertification move sets the clock ticking on a 60-day period during which Congress can choose to re-impose the sanctions.
Tehran has warned that such an action would mean that Washington had broken its end of the bargain, and thus likely signal the end of their own compliance.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on said the administration is not urging Congress to impose new sanctions.
“Obviously, if they do that, that does then put the JCPOA agreement in question,” Tillerson said.
Congress could also “do nothing,” and allow the deal to stand as is, he added.
Republicans, who are in the majority in both chambers of Congress, have for years denounced the pact, which was brokered during Barack Obama’s administration, warning that the Iranians could not be trusted.
When the deal was struck, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) that gave Congress a say in managing the accord — including a requirement for the US president to certify Iran’s compliance with the accord every 90 days, and an option to slap sanctions back on Iran with a simple majority vote.
But senior Republicans and Democrats alike are hesitant about re-imposing the sanctions, including restrictions on Iran’s vast oil sector, that had severely hobbled the country’s economy.
“As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
The committee’s top Democrat, Eliot Engel, warned that steps toward scuppering the deal would be “a grave mistake.”
“We in the United States have to live up to our word,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said it “might feel good for a second” to shred the deal. However, he added: “But one of the things that’s important for us is to keep our allies with us.”
One option unveiled Friday by Corker and Senate Republican Tom Cotton is an amendment to INARA that would toughen Iran’s compliance requirements and address what they call deficiencies in the deal.
The proposal would do away with the pact’s “sunset” provisions that would gradually allow Iran to advance its uranium enrichment program beginning in 2025.
According to a summary, the amendment would “indefinitely” maintain restrictions on enrichment.
“I think that we have provided a route to overcome deficiencies and to keep the administration in the deal, and actually make it the kind of deal it should have been in the first place,” Corker said.
Tillerson signalled the president would be supportive of using INARA to address dissatisfaction with elements of the deal.
Diplomats have privately expressed worry that tweaking INARA could jeopardize the agreement.
It remained to be seen whether there was enough support in Congress for the amendment, which would require a bipartisan majority in the Senate.
Former senator Joe Lieberman, who now chairs the group United Against Nuclear Iran, predicted inaction by his old colleagues.
“My guess is Congress will hold back,” he told reporters this week. “We will see what pressure builds.”—AFP