Elephants in the Room

Warning to Congress: Bad Iran Legislation Is Worse Than No Iran Legislation

President Trump can’t let the House and Senate play politics with Iranian nuclear deal.

The U.S. capitol building on Sep. 27, 2013. (Getty Images)
The U.S. capitol building on Sep. 27, 2013. (Getty Images)

In October, President Donald Trump took an important step toward countering Iran’s ever-expanding list of illicit activities by refusing to certify to Congress that the flawed nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration remained in America’s national security interest. Now he needs to stop Congress from giving away the leverage he established.

In unveiling a new U.S. policy toward Tehran, the president delivered a forceful indictment of both Iran and the nuclear agreement. From Iran’s continued development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to its refusal to allow international inspections at key military sites to its regional military expansion in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, the nuclear deal’s fundamental deficiencies made Iran stronger at the expense of U.S. national security. The president concluded his presentation with a clear warning to the world — fix this bad deal or America will bring back the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a foreign state in history.

The president’s threat sent diplomatic and economic shockwaves throughout the Middle East and Europe. Black-market traders inside Iran halted sales of foreign currencies due to a sudden crash in the value of the Iranian rial to levels not seen since before the nuclear deal came into effect. Iran is now significantly discounting its oil in the spot market, trying to weather the period of sanctions uncertainty.

French energy giant Total put a hold on efforts to develop Iran’s South Pars natural gas fields until it knows what kind of new sanctions may be coming from the United States. European diplomats are storming Capitol Hill begging members of Congress not to reimpose sanctions, while French President Emmanuel Macron is publicly acknowledging fundamental flaws with the existing agreement with respect to sunsets and ballistic missiles.

Despite warnings from former Obama administration officials that a presidential decertification would be ignored by U.S. allies and leave Washington isolated, the evidence is clear that decertification created a chilling effect on European re-investment and shook Iran’s economy. The events of the last month should reassure the president that he made the right decision — despite misgivings from some members of the interagency who either lack strategic vision or moral certitude.

Having failed to dissuade the president, supporters of the nuclear deal have a new target: the U.S. Congress. While the executive branch has total authority to unilaterally force changes to the nuclear deal by strengthening the conditions for waiving U.S. sanctions, Trump punted to Congress with an ultimatum: fix the deal legislatively or face the agreement’s termination.

At first, it seemed Congress might respond to the president’s call for action. Draft legislation circulated on Capitol Hill that would force an immediate snapback of all U.S. sanctions on Iran unless the regime halted its ballistic-missile program and allowed inspectors into key military sites where covert nuclear work may be taking place. It also used the threat of U.S. sanctions to erase the many sunsets contained in the original nuclear deal, which established a path toward an internationally recognized Iranian nuclear weapons program within a decade.

Now, almost two months after the president’s decertification, it’s increasingly clear we are headed for a legislative train wreck. Supporters of the nuclear deal are locking down Senate Democrats, ensuring there could never be enough votes to break a filibuster on meaningful legislation that actually “fixed” the agreement. Gone would be any requirements that Iran halt its development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles — even though the U.N. Security Council resolution implementing the nuclear deal calls on Iran to do just that. Gone would be air-tight enforcement of inspections at Iranian military sites. Gone would be any automatic snapback of sanctions if the Iranians broke their obligations. Gone would be the president’s requirement to certify the deal every 90 days. The only thing left would be a de facto legitimization of the deal tied to meaningless, non-binding policy statements designed to give political cover to senators who don’t want to look weak on Iran.

Given the executive branch’s unquestioned prerogative to change U.S. policy on the Iran deal and reimpose sanctions whenever the president wants, the leadership of the House and Senate should remember that bad Iran legislation is worse than no Iran legislation. Congress should not act unless it can pass legislation that increases U.S. leverage to change Iranian behavior by holding the sanctions sword of Damocles over the regime and its would-be trading partners in Europe.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a long-time Iran hawk, could always invoke the Senate’s nuclear option to prevent Iran’s nuclear option. But if such a move is off the table and a filibuster of meaningful legislation cannot be defeated, Congress should punt the issue back to the White House and let the president’s unpredictability be an asset in a comprehensive effort to roll back Iran.

Richard Goldberg worked on Capitol Hill from 2005 to 2014, serving as senior national security adviser to former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. He was a lead architect of several rounds of Congressionally enacted sanctions on Iran, and is now a a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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