by Derek Davison
With relatively little fanfare, an important deadline passed by on December 12: the 60-day window during which Congress could have reimposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. That window had been opened on October 13 when President Donald Trump—under the terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA)—refused to certify that the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was in America’s national interest.
In announcing that he would not certify the JCPOA in October, Trump made it clear that he wanted Congress to alter its terms or at least take action to pressure Iran and the other parties to the deal into altering its terms:
That is why I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons. These include the deal’s sunset clauses that, in just a few years, will eliminate key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.
The flaws in the deal also include insufficient enforcement and near total silence on Iran’s missile programs. Congress has already begun the work to address these problems. Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter- — this is so totally important — an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law. So important. I support these initiatives.
Per INARA, the failure to certify triggered the aforementioned window, during which Congress had the authority (not subject to a Senate filibuster) to simply reimpose all American sanctions on Iran that had been suspended under the terms of the JCPOA. Doing so would have meant that the United States was withdrawing from the accord, and—because many of those sanctions were so-called “secondary” sanctions that apply to any country or company that does business with Iran—could well have meant the collapse of the entire deal. Thanks in no small part to an intensive lobbying effort by European diplomats who support the deal, Congress has opted not to take that step.
Likewise, legislation to strengthen the deal’s terms or address other perceived Iranian misdeeds appears to have stalled. A bill drafted by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) would, among other things, create a new condition whereby sanctions could be reimposed against Iran in perpetuity if the Islamic Republic is ever deemed to be less than 12 months away from possibly building a nuclear weapon.
But that measure has met with near-universal opposition from Democrats and the Europeans, who say it would represent a unilateral reworking of the JCPOA’s terms, and even from some ultra-hawkish Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who believe the measure doesn’t go far enough. And contrary to Trump’s October remarks, observers say that his White House has not been actively engaged in working with Congress on developing a bill.
JCPOA supporters, who might be inclined to celebrate the end of the 60-day INARA window passing without incident, are instead questioning what happens next. In his October 13 speech, Trump seemed to suggest that, if Congress failed to take action to change the nuclear deal, he would take unilateral action to scrap it:
However, in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.
Trump may have been hoping Congress would make at least a cosmetic change to the accord, something he could use to claim victory and move on. But now the onus is squarely back on Trump to decide the nuclear agreement’s fate. Two deadlines will arrive in mid-January that will give Trump an opportunity to terminate the deal if he wants. In one, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must issue a new round of waivers to maintain Iran’s sanctions relief. With the International Atomic Energy Agency continuing to certify that Iran is complying with its JCPOA requirements, it will be difficult for Tillerson to justify reneging on America’s. Of course, ongoing rumors about Tillerson’s job security make it hard to predict whether he’ll still be secretary of state in January, let alone what he might do if he is.
The second deadline applies to Trump. In a scenario that calls to mind the film Groundhog Day, INARA’s 90-day certification deadline, the one whereby Trump refused to certify the deal in October, is up again next month. At that time, Trump will again have the option to refuse certification and reopen another 60-day window for Congress to reimpose sanctions. There’s no reason to believe Congress would be any more open to taking that step in January and February than it was in October and November, but for proponents of diplomacy and the nuclear accord this could just be the beginning of an indefinite cycle of threats to both.
Photo: Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)