Key lawmakers are predicting that President Donald Trump will pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal later this spring. And although there is an appetite on Capitol Hill and within Trump’s own national security team to save the accord, members of Congress say they lack the immediate legislative options to save it from Trump’s axe.
The president’s antipathy toward the deal struck by his predecessor is well established, and he has privately vented about a law that requires him to certify every few months that Iran remains in compliance with the terms of the deal.
The next deadline to waive nuclear-related sanctions is May 12. And Trump has hinted, if not outwardly threatened, that he will use that moment to effectively pull the U.S. out of the agreement unless European allies agree to stricter terms.
Lawmakers may be able to avoid that outcome if they were to pass legislation scrapping the certification requirements. But Democrats seem unwilling to tangle with those requirements as talks about enhancing the deal continue. And Republicans believe that the threat of leaving the deal entirely is needed in order to move European leaders during the negotiations.
“There will be no congressional action until there’s a framework [agreed to with the Europeans],” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the foreign relations panel, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve let the White House know clearly that the onus is on them to negotiate a framework. If they get a framework done, then we’ll look at domestic language.”
Corker isn’t optimistic that such a framework will ever come together. While he believes the White House and the Europeans can agree on new, stricter restrictions when it comes to Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and the frequency of nuclear inspections, the administration’s biggest qualm with the agreement—the so-called “sunset” provisions which allow some limitations on Tehran’s nuclear program to expire—isn’t likely to be re-evaluated.
The retiring senator predicted that the European partners—consisting of France, Germany and the United Kingdom—could eventually give up major concessions and move closer to the Trump administration’s position on the deal as the deadline approaches. If that comes together, he reasoned, it could end up saving the Iran accord and allow Congress to change the law requiring presidential certifications every few months. Corker and his counterparts were working on a framework recently that would have moved the certification requirement from 90 days to 180 days.
Certification requirements were not part of the initial nuclear accord. Indeed, they were put into place later as lawmakers in the House and Senate sought to force then-President Barack Obama and any future president to essentially re-affirm their support for the agreement a handful of times per year. The resulting Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), helmed by Corker, passed overwhelmingly in 2015.
Once Trump took office, however, the law took on a new meaning. Instead of forcing the president to stand by the nuclear accord, it became a pressure point for Trump to pull out of the deal altogether. Trump’s national security team, which has been wary of abandoning the deal, has since encouraged lawmakers to scrap the certification provision. Other foreign policy observers believe that eliminating those requirements would allow the U.S. to quietly remain within the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and give additional peace of mind to the deal’s other partners.
“The most essential thing for stability in the nuclear agreement is eliminating the waivers in congressional legislation that cause drama every three to four months with the president,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East security program at the Center for New American Security, and a former aide to John Kerry at the State Department. “Democrats and the Europeans want this to be the last time we have this drama, which you only do by getting rid of the waivers and the certification.”
Even senators who initially opposed the deal believe the U.S. is better served to remain in the agreement, especially as the administration prepares for a possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But they’re not willing to step in legislatively to get rid of the presidential waiver and certification requirements until they have proper assurances from the Europeans that such changes to existing law wouldn’t violate the terms of the JCPOA.
“The only reason to do any INARA work would be if there are things that would actually get the president to stay in the deal,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast.
“I believe they should actually use the leverage which I think the administration inadvertently created by saying he wants to move away from the deal,” Menendez, a longtime Iran deal skeptic, said. “That’s leverage you could use with the Europeans to get them to join us in multilateral actions outside of the nuclear portfolio, and to get them to bring Iran to the table to deal with the sunset issues.”
Trump has quietly and reluctantly issued those waivers and certifications a handful of times throughout his presidency—and the White House said the January waiver was the final one the president would sign. At the time, Trump said the onus was on the Europeans to “fix the terrible flaws,” or else the U.S. would pull out of the deal.
Lawmakers who have been briefed on those negotiations don’t expect them to be fruitful.
“Right now, in the discussions between Europe and the White House, I think they’re having difficulty because some of the things the president’s asking for is more than Europe is prepared to [give],” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who previously served as the ranking member of the foreign relations committee, told The Daily Beast.
While Corker had been working behind the scenes with national security adviser H.R. McMaster to preserve the deal, his Republican colleagues appear comfortable with walking away from it. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the Senate’s most strident Iran hawks, has been pushing for new sanctions and other restrictions on Iran outside of the nuclear framework.
“The current deal is terrible. The sunset clause is a joke. It’s going to lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “And if the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese don’t help us get a better deal, then I think the president should withdraw.”
McMaster, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have argued to the president that it would be better for the U.S. to stay in the deal—but with Tillerson soon to be gone from that role and McMaster possibly following him out the door, lawmakers worry that the president will have fewer people around him encouraging him to remain in the JCPOA.
“Trying to predict what will affect the president’s behavior is very difficult,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. “If you pull out of the deal, I think our allies are going to peel off from us and the U.S. will have broken the coalition.”