Donald Trump on Friday placed a gun to the head of the landmark 2015 Iranian nuclear deal while telling Congress and U.S. allies it will be their fault if he pulls the trigger. Both are refusing to go along with the murder.
Democrats in the Senate, who by sheer legislative math are pivotal to Trump’s plans, are gearing up to protect the deal and calling the prime legislative effort from the Republicans to cash out Trump’s hostile posture to Iran a “nonstarter.”
And the European allies who are parties to the deal immediately rejected Trump in a striking defense of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The capstone of Trump’s long-anticipated speech about the deal was a threat aimed not at Teheran, but at London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Beijing, Moscow and Capitol Hill. Either renegotiate the JCPOA internationally and bolster it congressionally or “the agreement will be terminated,” Trump pledged, adding non-nuclear sanctions to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and entities doing business with it.
The speech also came with a long-anticipated announcement that the president was “de-certifying” Iran’s compliance with the agreement—an assessment that defies Iran’s undisputed compliance with the deal. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which verifies the deal, reiterated after Trump’s speech that “the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented.”
Decertification, according to a 2015 law, opens a 60-day legislative window to restore nuclear-related sanctions, a condition known as “snapback.” Though snapback only requires a 50-vote majority, few on Capitol Hill are showing any sign of support for it now. Snapback was designed on the premise that decertification would follow actual evidence of Iranian noncompliance, rather than the circumstance that Trump has created: American intransigence.
The primary piece of legislation Trump seeks is a not-yet-drafted bill by GOP senators Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, the latter of whom is fresh off a scorched-earth feud with the president. The two Senators, in a factsheet summarizing the major initiatives of their bill, propose a punt—though one that will yield Trump tremendous field position. They seek “automatic snapback of U.S. sanctions” on the nuclear program should Iran “go under a one-year breakout period” to get a nuke, without specifying who certifies that condition.
The Corker-Cotton bill pitches itself as the cornerstone of the “a U.S. policy on Iran that is backed by a bipartisan majority in Congress”—something Democrats are greeting with strident opposition.
“This is going to be a nonstarter with Democrats,” said one Senate aide.
While Corker and Cotton’s bill is predicated on changing the trigger for snapback, the aide said it would still “need 60 votes,” since it isn’t itself a vote to snap sanctions back. Somehow, Trump, Cotton and Corker will need to hold the entire GOP caucus and convince eight Democrats to go along.
A different Senate aide pointed to the 2015 legislative vote as proof that Democrats can withstand the inevitable partisan criticism that they show themselves to be weak on Iran, terrorism and ballistic missiles by declining to vote to undermine the deal.
“Whatever hit they were going to take from this, they’ve already taken,” the second Senate staffer said.
One early sign of the Democratic response to Trump came from Sens. Ben Cardin, Bob Menendez and Chuck Schumer, all of whom initially opposed the Iran deal and now oppose Trump’s efforts to kill it. After Trump’s speech, Cardin blasted Trump in a statement for having “manufactured a crisis.”
Since Trump could have decided today to pull out of the deal, Cardin said Trump was “abdicating his leadership role to Congress.”
“We will not buy into the false premise that it is Congress’ role to legislate solutions to problems of his own making,” Cardin added.
Schumer, the Democratic leader, cited support for the deal from Trump’s defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I believe Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, will heed their recommendation.”
And Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who continues to call the deal “bad,” referred to “political calculations” as the wellspring for Trump’s speech.
“Moving forward Congress should evaluate the JCPOA through a lens that understands the geopolitical reality we live in today. The United States cannot afford to ignore our international obligations, the importance of our multilateral diplomatic efforts in 2017, or the broader national security implications of diminishing our credibility on the international stage,” he said.
Menendez was able to say that because the European reaction was even more strident in rejecting Trump’s approach than the reaction of congressional Democrats.
Almost immediately after Trump’s Friday speech, the European Union’s top diplomat practically rebutted Trump. Federica Mogherini, a JCPOA negotiator, called it an “international” deal, not for any single country to renegotiate, throwing cold water on Trump’s demand to open the deal back up for adjustment.
Following Mogherini, the UK, France and Germany issued an extraordinary joint public statement saying they were “concerned by the possible implications” of Trump’s actions and reiterating their “committ[ment] to the JCPOA and its full implementation by all sides.”
The traditional U.S. allies continued: “We encourage the U.S. Administration and Congress to consider the implications to the security of the U.S. and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.” Addressing Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism were shunted to the side as “further appropriate measures” that would be “independent of the JCPOA.”
Behind the scenes, Trump’s aides have attempted to thread the needle between Trump’s hatred of the Iran deal—which was , a practical catechism on the American right in 2017 owing to its status as Barack Obama’s defining diplomatic achievement—and a U.S. interest in not being responsible for its destruction. Rex Tillerson, the marginalized secretary of state, told reporters last night that Congress could even “decide to do nothing” on the deal. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has quietly been telling Democrats just to do away with the 2015 legislation’s provision of recertifying the deal every 90 days so Trump can ignore the JCPOA.
Preserving the deal itself, the U.K., France and Germany said Friday, was unequivocally “in our shared security interest.” That’s because it has cut off Iran’s uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon for the 10-year lifespan of the deal. Should Iran feel that Washington is turning its back on the deal, it will have little reason not to renew its efforts at a nuclear weapon.
That very real prospect prompted Sen. Jack Reed, the senior Democrat on the armed services committee, to warn on Friday that, “irresponsibly decertifying the JCPOA now could accelerate Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and make America less safe.”
One of the Democratic staffers told The Daily Beast that Trump was “playing chicken” with Congress—a dangerous game, considering the stakes involve a nuclear Iran and, quite possibly, a war.
Dismissing Trump’s threat, the staffer mocked his position as: “In the future, I will do something I am too cowardly to do today.”