Shadow Government

Corker and Cotton’s False Promises Would Push Iran Toward Nuclearization

The Republican senators want to keep the JCPOA while adding new restrictions. It won’t work.

Senator Bob Corker speaks to the press on Sep. 9, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Senator Bob Corker speaks to the press on Sep. 9, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Following President Donald Trump’s decision not to certify under domestic law that the Iran nuclear deal is in the nation’s security interests, Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Tom Cotton announced they would be proposing legislation that attempts to unilaterally renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, in line with the White House’s approach. Their proposal seeks to use domestic legislation to impose new restrictions not in the nuclear deal, a multilateral arrangement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They would do this by modifying the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA), so that it would allow the president to reimpose nuclear sanctions if Iran doesn’t meet their new, unilateral demands. Corker and Cotton assume that the United States will gain leverage by re-imposing sanctions even while Iran continues to comply with its own commitments, even though doing so would be in violation of American JCPOA commitments and despite clear warnings by our key partners that the deal is not up for renegotiation. If this sounds illogical and reckless, that’s because it is. Proposals like this are a backdoor attempt to legislate the collapse of the deal.

It is no secret that Corker and Cotton are foes of the JCPOA, the multilateral arrangement reached in 2015 to verifiably and permanently prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Corker authored INARA in large part to allow Congress to vote on blocking the deal from being implemented — both he and Cotton voted to do so. The vote failed, but both senators have continued to oppose the JCPOA even though the International Atomic Energy Agency, charged with verifying Iran’s nuclear commitments, has confirmed eight times that Iran is complying. As for Cotton, who openly advocates for a policy of regime change in Iran, it is unsurprising that he would rather see Congress collapse the deal than rigorously enforce and continue to abide by it.

Despite their opposition to the existence of the JCPOA, Corker and Cotton have claimed their proposal would not violate our JCPOA commitments. Based on a fact sheet they released describing their proposal, it would create a domestic law requirement — not just an option — to automatically snap our nuclear sanctions back into place if Iran engages in certain activities. They would bypass even the fast-track procedures in INARA, which already allows a bare majority in Congress to vote to pull out of the deal if there is significant Iranian non-compliance. In their new proposal, Corker and Cotton would leave no discretion for Congress: Once the president determines that one of the conditions has been met, all sanctions would be re-imposed. Their proposal calls for this automatic snapback if Iran engages in certain activities that are permitted under the JCPOA, which their bill would presumably enumerate. They call their proposed triggers for automatic sanctions snap back “enhanced restrictions” — an acknowledgment that these would be unilaterally imposed terms that weren’t agreed upon at the negotiating table.

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. That may be why Corker and Cotton make the narrower claim in their fact sheet that their legislation “would not conflict with the JCPOA upon passage.” That caveat is a telling admission that their proposal would, at minimum, transgress our commitments in the future. But even the claim that their approach would be consistent with the JCPOA at the time the legislation is passed should not be heeded for at least three reasons.

First, to put their argument in perspective, imagine if Iran’s parliament passed a measure that would halt implementation of Iran’s nuclear constraints and kick out inspectors if the U.S. didn’t pull our military personnel out of Iraq and provide sanctions relief beyond what we agreed in the JCPOA. We would rightly call foul immediately, with the world united alongside us. We would not take seriously an argument that Iran wasn’t violating its commitments because we could just comply with its new, unilateral demands. And we wouldn’t trust Iran to negotiate a new agreement because its word would be worthless.

Second, without knowing the specific “enhanced restrictions” Corker and Cotton will put forward, we can’t be sure that they would come into play only at some date in the future. Based on their proposal, some are related to JCPOA provisions that are set to expire, while others are not. Their fact sheet’s claim that “all restrictions [on Iran’s nuclear program] expire” by year 15 of the JCPOA is false — the core prohibition against Iran having a nuclear weapons program and important verification provisions to prevent cheating never expire, while many other key provisions last 20 or 25 years, or more. And it could well be the case that even current Iranian activity is on Corker and Cotton’s list of “enhanced restrictions.” This is a plausible scenario, given their claim that the legislation would address “the full spectrum of Iran’s nefarious activities” — that is, activities in which Iran is now engaged that we don’t support, but that are separate and apart from the nuclear deal. Iran’s non-nuclear activity of concern merits addressing, and Corker and Cotton claim their bill would “provide a window” for “firm diplomacy” to work. But as I’ve argued before, a surefire way to guarantee failure of a diplomatic initiative to achieve a new multilateral agreement is to violate our existing one with the same partners.

Finally, in the main text of the JCPOA itself, all parties committed to implement the deal “in good faith” and to refrain from actions inconsistent with the JCPOA that would “undermine its successful implementation.” All of the parties, including the United States, also specifically committed to “make best efforts in good faith to sustain” the JCPOA. It’s hard to argue that the Corker-Cotton proposal, as it stands, doesn’t transgress these commitments. In contrast, Trump’s claims of bad faith on Iran’s part based on activity that is not part of the JCPOA ring false — we knew that Iran never committed to stop funding proxies in regional conflicts or testing ballistic missiles, and, for good reason, we didn’t pursue those issues in the nuclear negotiations. That’s why the JCPOA didn’t tie our hands on those issues and our sanctions on those activities remain in place.

The Corker-Cotton approach has the potential to unshackle Iran’s nuclear program and turn international scrutiny on us. Re-imposing sanctions because of activity that is permitted under the JCPOA frees Iran from the deal’s significant restraints on its nuclear program — its text specifies that failure to live up to our sanctions relief commitments will be treated as grounds by Iran “to cease performing its commitments.” In contrast, if we meet our commitments, we hold Iran’s feet to the fire, and keep the cameras on and the international inspectors in. The latter approach is the only one that maintains U.S. credibility and our ability to engage seriously on the international stage, including on pressing national security concerns like the North Korea nuclear crisis. And these are the consequences, whether the president violates our commitments by failing to waive nuclear sanctions, or whether Congress does so through legislation like this.

Perhaps Corker and Cotton believe — incorrectly — that their proposal allows the United States to keep its word for now. Or perhaps, along with former George W. Bush administration officials like John Bolton, they would like to see the collapse of the nuclear deal even though it risks putting the United States on a path toward military confrontation. If so, they should admit that ending the deal is their goal. Either way, the Corker-Cotton proposal is inconsistent with our commitments, and the United States will not get a better deal by breaking the one that’s working.

Tess Bridgeman is an affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. She served as special assistant to President Barack Obama, associate counsel to the president, and deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council.

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