by Ryan Costello
Trump’s Iran speech sets the Iran nuclear deal, which is working and supported by his own national security team, firmly in the crosshairs. If Congress does not pass deal-killing legislation, Trump has vowed to terminate the accord himself. Such a reckless, foolhardy position openly risks creating a new nuclear crisis and another disastrous war in the Middle East. Yet it is unclear whether legislators will see through Trump’s lies and distortions in order to muster the will to stop him.
There will, undoubtedly, be many twists and turns in the Iran deal debate over the months to come. However, when it comes to U.S. adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the outcome will likely rest on the answers to the following questions.
Will Cotton’s Poison Pill Legislation Pass?
The legislation from Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bob Corker (R-TN) that Trump has called for appears to be a clear-cut violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA not to reimpose nuclear sanctions, as well as to avoid interfering with the normalization of Iran’s economic activities. According to a summary, the legislation would automatically trigger the snapback of nuclear sanctions if Iran’s nuclear program moves beyond the one-year breakout timeline—an estimate of the amount of time it would take Iran to enrich sufficient fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. Those calculations vary. Some deal opponents have put Iran’s breakout time potentially lower than one year now, though others have estimated the breakout to drop below the one-year threshold sometime around the 14th year of the accord.. Either way, in combination with Trump’s reckless decertification, passage of the Cotton-Corker bill would cause a major break with our international allies who would also be vital to any nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Despite these dangers, the bill could prove difficult to stop. As opposed to a straight up-or-down vote on whether to blatantly kill the deal, Cotton’s more convoluted approach to violating the deal may be more palatable to deal opponents and supporters in Congress who continue to worry about Iran’s non-nuclear activities and the eventual sunset of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Those with trepidations should remember that if they go along with Trump, Cotton, and Corker in tanking the deal, those sunsets will begin immediately—and they’ll be stuck with a significant portion of the blame. It would be far preferable to call Trump’s bluff and allow him to fall on his own sword and kill the JCPOA rather than be an accomplice to his crime.
This legislation should be seen in line with other legislation that included poison pills amid nuclear negotiations. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, negotiated between Sens. Corker and Ben Cardin (D-MD), originally included a poison pill that would have required the president to certify that Iran was not supporting terrorism targeting Americans. Failure to do so would have snapped back sanctions under expedited procedure. That certification would have been quite difficult for any president to prove, and it was ultimately stripped out of the bill, setting up passage and the 60-day review period when deal opponents proved unable to muster the votes necessary to kill the deal.
Will Tensions in the Region Reach Boiling Point?
The Trump administration has issued an unprecedented designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization using the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) tag. This decision followed congressional legislation passed in July that encouraged but did not mandate such a designation.
This designation will carry zero additional sanctions consequences for the IRGC, which is already heavily sanctioned. But it could provoke retaliation from IRGC-backed forces operating in close proximity to U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. As a result, the Pentagon has opposed the designation for more than a decade. In February, defense and intelligence officials warned that a separate terrorist designation could “endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State, and would be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.” Those warnings appeared to have delayed a designation for months, though the administration ultimately pulled the trigger on a terror tag.
It is not hard to imagine how such a designation could quickly spiral out of control. Prior to the designation, the IRGC threatened a response. Further, in the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the week, Amb. James Jeffrey warned that the United States should be prepared to respond to Iran’s likely retaliation. According to Jeffrey, that response “includes potentially striking them in their homeland.”
Will Sanctions Snapback Come to a Vote in the Senate?
With the pending introduction of the Cotton-Corker legislation, Congress may abstain from a harmful vote to immediately snap back nuclear sanctions under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. The fact that many fierce deal opponents appear to oppose such a course, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), means that such a vote could be avoided.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a vote. Under the expedited procedures laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the House of Representatives could pass qualifying legislation snapping back new nuclear sanctions. Only the leadership can introduce qualifying “snap-back” legislation, so it is up to Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to decide whether the House will vote on reinstating the nuclear sanctions. If it passes such a measure, which is quite possible given the chamber’s history of approving Iran sanctions legislation inimical to the nuclear deal, that legislation would bypass Senate committees and head straight to the floor for a vote. If that is the case, only 51 senators would be needed to kill the deal (as opposed to 60 for Cotton-Corker), and it is far from certain that sufficient JCPOA opponents would have the resolve to vote down a bill effectively killing the accord. Further, the prospect of a vote could be used as an attempt to punish Democrats if they abstain from Cotton-Corker.
Although it’s possible there will be no vote, that would require Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to abstain from introducing the legislation. Otherwise, the Senate might face the prospect of a nail-biting vote.
Will Trump Snap Back Sanctions on His Own?
Even if deal-killing sanctions are avoided, Trump himself has now vowed to unilaterally kill the deal. Further, he has already tied himself in a logical knot when it comes to waiving sanctions as required in the future. In order to waive nuclear-related sanctions on Iran—which must happen every few months in order to sustain the deal—the president must certify that doing so is in the vital national security interests of the United States. However, Trump has now decertified the JCPOA on the grounds that continuing sanctions relief under the accord is not in the national security interest, a position counter to his own secretary of defense.
Would Trump argue that the deal is not in the national security interests of the United States and then allow his administration to assert that it is in January to sustain the deal? Perhaps. But it is also possible that Trump will be angered that he is forced to certify his predecessor’s accord once again, which is apparently the major driving force behind decertification to begin with. Hence, even if the worst potential outcome is avoided for now, danger remains on the immediate horizon.
Ryan Costello is assistant policy director at the National Iranian American Council. Photo: Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.