President Trump is calling on Congress to fix the nuclear deal with Iran, a risky strategy with a high degree of difficulty. The legislative gambit, as explained by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday evening, delegates the administration’s responsibility for addressing perceived flaws in the nuclear deal. And if Congress doesn’t come together to act on his demands, Trump will get what he has always wanted: an excuse to pull out of the deal altogether and point the finger at someone else.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) released a summary Friday morning of their proposal to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which Congress passed in 2015 to provide for oversight of the deal. Trump will announce Friday that he has decided not to certify that the Iran deal is in the United States’ national interest and call on Congress to act.
The senators’ plan, coordinated with Tillerson over several weeks, would add “triggers” to the law that would automatically reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran if its regime came within one year of achieving nuclear weapons capability. It would also seek to address the “sunset clauses” in the deal, by unilaterally extending various restrictions on Iran that were set to expire in the coming years.
The president’s attitude, according to Tillerson, is that the United States must “either put more teeth into this obligation that Iran has undertaken… or let’s just forget the whole thing. We’ll walk away and start all over.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me Friday morning that he will support the Tillerson-Corker-Cotton drive to pass new legislation and that he believes Trump will pull the United States out of the deal if the effort fails.
“The president is putting the burden on Congress to avoid a withdrawal,” Graham said. “If Congress can’t rise to the occasion and Congress can’t see Iran is a problem, well then, he tried.”
Graham said the politics of the Iran issue favor Republicans and the strategy is to present the new legislation as a reasonable fix to a bad deal. If Congress does what the president wants, then the U.S. government can present a united front to European allies and even Iran.
Democrats know they are being set up. If they oppose the proposal, they risk being tarred as weak on Iran. If the president pulls out of the deal due to congressional inaction, they could catch blame for that as well. Nevertheless, early indications are they won’t go along.
“It’s extremely risky [that] they think they can get eight of us to peel off on this,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Democrats don’t want to be complicit in putting us on a path that leads to us violating the deal.”
The Senate would need 60 votes to pass new legislation to amend INARA. Alternatively, Congress could use the expedited provisions under INARA to reimpose nuclear sanctions now, needing only 50 votes. Or it could do nothing at all.
Some congressional Republicans resent Trump giving them all the hard work to do while setting them up to take the blame if it fails. They point out that Trump has all the authority he needs to set up triggers, reimpose sanctions or do anything else he is asking Congress to do.
“If the president wants to get tough on Iran, he can do that any day of the week,” said one senior GOP congressional aide. “They don’t want to own it. ”
I asked Tillerson why the administration feels the need to place the burden on Congress, rather than just take the same actions itself without the drama and the risk of failure. He said he wanted Congress to give him the backing needed to persuade the rest of the world to fix the Iran deal.
“It enables me and it enables others to represent to our friends and allies and also to the Iranians … that this is the full sense of the U.S. government that we have to deal with this now, not later,” Tillerson said.
“It helps us lay that groundwork for a successor deal,” he added. “We want to motivate the other signatories and Iran to start the negotiations now.”
Tillerson said Congress has 90 days to act, before the next certification deadline. Graham said 60 days was the deadline. Either way, Congress is now officially on the clock.
“Are we putting pressure on the Iranians or ourselves?” said former White House and State Department official Dennis Ross. “It’s like a red line.”
In a normal environment, asking Congress to debate and pass complicated legislation with international consequences on a tight deadline would be ill advised. But this is not a normal environment. Trump has had major clashes with both officials taking the lead on this, Tillerson and Corker, just this month. The Europeans and the Iranians have already warned that they have little interest in playing along with an administration they see as dysfunctional and disrespectful to their views.
“I don’t want to suggest to you this is a slam dunk on the Hill,” Tillerson said. “We know it’s not.”