Elephants in the Room

How Congress Can Help Trump Outmaneuver Iran

The United States needs a policy that unifies its allies in curbing Tehran.

Demonstrators burn a photo of U.S. President Donald Trump in Tehran on December 11, 2017. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators burn a photo of U.S. President Donald Trump in Tehran on December 11, 2017. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

With the Trump administration’s two top foreign policy positions in transition and a May 12 deadline — which requires that the White House either renew an Iran sanctions waiver or withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord — fast approaching, the United States has urgent need of an approach that addresses the deal’s shortcomings without creating new foreign policy headaches. Congress should remove this artificial deadline and allow the administration to focus on the range of Iranian threats and how best to counter them.

The Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), which came into force in July 2015, slowed Iran’s enrichment plans, authorized an international inspection mechanism, and deferred the country’s path to nuclear weapons by several years. Critics faulted the deal for exempting military sites from inspection, softening a U.N. prohibition on ballistic missile activity that Iran immediately exploited, returning billions of dollars in interest-adjusted frozen assets, and above all, failing to secure a clear Iranian commitment to forego nuclear weapons permanently.

Not only President Donald Trump, but a bipartisan chorus in Congress, which the Barack Obama administration kept in the dark throughout the negotiations, raised many concerns. Legislators were outraged to be handed a finished package: The U.N. Security Council voted to lift sanctions on Iran before Congress could review the accord. Since then, Tehran has abused Obama’s offer to pursue rapprochement, waging a campaign of aggression across the Middle East that directly targets U.S. interests.

While denouncing the nuclear deal, Trump has every 90 days reluctantly made certifications required to keep it going. But in January he made clear that he would not do so again on May 12 unless Congress and the parties to the accord implement stronger measures. U.S. and European officials have been meeting to explore the possibility of fixing the JCPOA. The outcome of these discussions remains to be determined. Iranian officials may claim that any attempt to alter provisions agreed upon in 2015 would invalidate the accord.

Should the United States withdraw from the JCPOA, four adverse consequences are predictable.

First, Washington would face recriminations from European allies, who helped negotiate the deal and now have major commercial contracts pending with Iran. Second, Iran could resume enrichment activities, this time with no U.N. prohibitions or sanctions. Third, a regional nuclear arms race could break out, with Iran’s Arab neighbors seeking to negate its nuclear advantage. And fourth, the president’s executive authority to negotiate international agreements could suffer, as other governments might insist on a Senate-confirmed treaty to insulate any deals reached with Trump from being undone by a successor.

Each outcome would harm the security interests of the United States and its allies, making this an appealing scenario for the Iranian regime. It has already pocketed the financial rewards of the deal, had U.N. sanctions lifted, and secured a permanent legal status for its nuclear program. With no accord, it could resume work on nuclear weapons and long-range missile delivery systems free from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, while still trading with the world. Tehran would play the victim, blaming the administration, and the JCPOA’s more ardent U.S. and European defenders would concur.

There is a better way. Congress could amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, removing the requirement for periodic presidential certification. Instead, the administration should regularly report to Congress on any sites where it suspects Iran of conducting unauthorized nuclear-related activity and, in coordination with allies, insist that the IAEA inspect them quickly, as a condition of maintaining the waiver on nuclear sanctions. Newly named National Security Advisor John Bolton is eminently qualified to oversee an intensified intelligence collection and nuclear inspections program.

The JCPOA’s provisions do not prevent Iran from eventually having nuclear weapons, but the United States could. Indeed, in an address to Israel’s Knesset in January, Vice President Mike Pence issued a “solemn promise” that the United States would “xnever allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Tehran is facilitating war crimes against civilians in Syria, fueling sectarian strife in Iraq, committing acts of war against Saudi Arabia via missiles launched by the Houthis in Yemen, and jailing and executing alarming numbers of its own citizens. These and other transgressions require a coordinated international response led by the United States, including robust non-nuclear sanctions. Iran may complain; if it is the one to withdraw from the JCPOA, the United States and its allies will be united.

Whatever the nuclear deal’s flaws, it put in place the restraints on Iran’s weapons program for which the United States traded so much. Perhaps the talks in Europe will strengthen these restraints. Regardless, the United States needs a policy that unifies its allies in curbing Iranian aggression. By relieving Trump of the requirement to keep waiving sanctions, Congress could avert a crisis and enable a more comprehensive response to Tehran’s malign activities, nuclear and non-nuclear.

The author is chairman of the non-partisan Stimson Center. He held policy positions in the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the White House under five Republican administrations.

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