President Trump has revealed his strategy on the Iran nuclear deal: Pressure Congress to take the heat for killing it or incur the blame for keeping it. Out of the gate, there is little sign that Capitol Hill is willing to play along. Trump’s strategy requires the support of at least some Democrats in the Senate (and key allies in Europe), and no one seems especially eager to lend it.
The president could have made good on his campaign threat to kill the deal by withdrawing from it outright. He could have also urged Congress to reimpose strict sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program — a move made possible by his decision on Friday to “decertify” the deal under U.S. law. New sanctions would have likely caused Tehran to say the U.S. was in material breach of the accord and pull out.
Instead, perhaps aware that he was unlikely to get Congress to pass such sanctions and unwilling to shoulder international criticism for being the side to violate the deal, the president on Friday called on lawmakers to amend a 2015 U.S. law allowing for congressional oversight of the nuclear deal; if they fail to do so, Trump threatened to “terminate” the deal entirely.
Trump’s proposed amendment would spell out triggers for new sanctions on Iran if it continues behavior that, to the president’s dissatisfaction, was not covered by the nuclear deal itself — such as missile development and terror activities. The idea is to hold Iran’s feet to the fire so that it enters into further negotiations to strengthen the deal without the U.S. having to scrap the deal itself first — an action that would likely forfeit the very support of the international community Washington would need for those negotiations. Since the deal says only that the U.S. can’t reimpose the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program it lifted at signing, State Department lawyers claim this amendment won’t violate the pact.
We explained earlier this week why pushing Capitol Hill to pass deal-killing sanctions was unlikely to succeed. But does this push for new legislation have any more chance of working? Trump is upping the pressure on members of Congress by threatening to exit the deal if the legislature doesn’t do his bidding. But in the end, this amendment is likely an even heavier lift for Trump than sanctions would have been, as key moderate Democrats are already balking at his proposal and some GOP heavyweights are expressing equal skepticism.
If Trump simply asked Congress to reimpose deal-killing sanctions, he would need only 50 votes in the Senate by the terms of the existing law (votes he already seemed to be short of). But with this new proposal, he now needs 60 senators: all 52 Republicans and at least eight Democrats or independents.1
Only four Democratic senators voted against the original nuclear deal in 2015, and three of them immediately announced opposition to Trump’s strategy on Friday: Chuck Schumer of New York, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland.2 That’s, in part, because Democrats are painting the amendment as deal-killing action akin to the earlier concept of re-imposing strict sanctions — an action even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted, in a briefing with reporters on Thursday, would be “tantamount to walking out” from the deal. There’s little sign that they are more open to the configuration announced Friday.
The Republican sponsors of the legislation insist, like the State Department, that this new proposal doesn’t undermine the Iran deal. “Instead, it would set conditions that halt Iran’s nuclear program and provide a window of time for firm diplomacy and pressure to work,” said Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. But Corker acknowledged that foreign allies will have to express some support for the updated legislation “in order to bring the Democrats along.”
And that’s unlikely to happen. Britain, France and Germany issued a rare joint statement after Trump’s speech warning Congress to “consider the implications to the security of the U.S. and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA,” using the acronym for the deal.
That doesn’t bode well for the White House’s argument that the proposed amendment will push the Europeans to join the U.S. in renegotiating the deal. But the key response will be the one that comes from Tehran. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not be the first to withdraw from the deal,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday. “But if its rights and interests in the deal are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions.”
Corker and Cotton are also getting pushback from fellow Republicans. Some are intent on fixing the agreement but also fear ostracizing America’s allies in Europe if the U.S. is seen to be moving unilaterally. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for example, issued a statement after Trump’s speech that he is “eager to collaborate with our partners and allies to revisit the most problematic provisions of the nuclear deal” while underscoring the need for “a unified, forceful international front in the event that Iran materially breaches the terms of the agreement.”
There are even challengers emerging from the right. “I will reserve judgment until actual legislation is presented. But I have serious doubts about whether it is even possible to fix such a dangerously flawed agreement,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said. “Ultimately, leaving the nuclear deal, reimposing suspended sanctions, and having the president impose additional sanctions would serve our national interest better.”
It’s important to note that Corker and Cotton have not yet published their amendment — likely to give themselves maneuvering room after they gauge reaction to Trump’s speech. It is possible that the two Republican senators settle on a formulation that wins over Democratic support. But they have been working on the broad outlines of this for weeks, and in its basic principle, the few Democrats who might have been sympathetic to their arguments have already defected.
Iran’s position has always been that it will not allow the U.S. to force it into being the party that kills the deal. That appears to be Congress’ position now: Lawmakers are refusing to take upon themselves the president’s weighty diplomatic responsibilities.
The administration may not truly care if the amendment passes after all — its goal may simply be to establish leverage and a negotiating position, to buy time and the credibility of their threat to withdraw with allies and foes alike. Tillerson admitted, “We don’t want to suggest this is a slam dunk on the Hill. We know it’s not.”
Tillerson said that he hopes Congress will pass this amendment within 90 days, before the next deadline for the president to certify Iran’s adherence with the deal. It suggests another priority of the administration in pushing the new proposal is to save the president the legal responsibility and political headache of repeatedly verifying Iran’s compliance as U.S. law currently mandates.
But there’s a third possibility: that Trump is serious about withdrawing unilaterally if Congress fails to act. The initial response from lawmakers and foreign diplomats suggests that they think Trump is bluffing — but Trump has time before he needs to reveal his cards.