Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was not the only U.S. senator conducting some quiet Iran-related diplomacy earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference. Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) met with European leaders there to discuss their plan for a new nuclear bargain that would include not just Iran but Washington’s Gulf allies as well. They are working on legislation now that would lay out the specifics of their plan, which they detailed for me on the plane ride home from Munich.
Essentially, their idea is that the United States would offer a new nuclear deal to both Iran and the gulf states at the same time. The first part would be an agreement to ensure that Iran and the gulf states have access to nuclear fuel for civilian energy purposes, guaranteed by the international community in perpetuity. In exchange, both Iran and the gulf states would swear off nuclear fuel enrichment inside their own countries forever.
Of course, Iran has a huge enrichment capability already, whereas the gulf states do not. But Iran would also get some sanctions relief. Then the United States and Iran would sit down for negotiations over a more comprehensive pact that would include restraints on Iran’s missile program and its funding of terrorism in exchange for broader sanctions relief.
That final deal would be designated as a treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate, to give Iran confidence that a new president won’t just pull out (like President Trump did on President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal).
Graham told me he knows it will be difficult to convince his Senate colleagues — and also the White House — this is a path worth exploring. But he’s trying to jump-start some type of diplomacy because, he says, that’s what Trump is seeking, and the current stalemate is not sustainable.
“I think the [current Iran nuclear deal] is fatally flawed, but that’s not the end of the discussion,” Graham said. “The goal is to give Iran nuclear power without enrichment. That way they can have what they say they want, nuclear power. And the world never has to worry about a bomb, because you can’t make a bomb unless you enrich.”
The nuclear fuel would be stored outside the region, and an international consortium would oversee its distribution. If this sounds similar to a proposal Russia offered to Iran in 2005 (and that Iran rejected), that’s because it is. The idea is, if Iran really only wants nuclear energy, it should have no problem forgoing the capability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons-grade levels.
If the Iranians reject the offer, at the very least their unwillingness will expose their true intention to maintain the capability to build a bomb, Menendez told me. At that point, European powers might be convinced to join Washington in its “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.
“If they don’t go for it, we’ve flushed them out,” Menendez said. “Either they truly want nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, or they want it for a bomb. If they want nuclear energy for a bomb, the whole world should know it and then they should join us in our sanctions effort.”
Menendez told me that he and Graham pitched it together to national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and also met with British, French and German officials in Washington last month. Graham said European leaders were “very excited” about the idea of a new path forward for Iran diplomacy.
One of the leaders Graham met with in Munich was French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Iranian leaders for months. Graham also pitched the idea to House leaders and directly to Trump. “I told him, [the fact that it’s] bipartisan is a breakthrough,” Graham said. “He said, ‘Well, keep trying.’ ”
This plan would be a departure from the tough stance that Republican hawks in the Senate now pursue: They are calling for more sanctions and the end of waivers that the Trump administration continues to grant. Graham is a co-sponsor on a bill to end the waivers and “dismantle” the Obama nuclear deal with Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). Graham acknowledges he is departing from that plan.
“If you want regime change, count me in. But that’s not the policy of the Trump administration,” Graham said. “That may be Cotton’s position, that may be Cruz’s position, but that’s not Trump’s position.”
The senators are guessing there’s a window to do something while Trump is running for reelection and looking for deals to show progress on foreign policy. If this all succeeds, Trump could say he avoided war with Iran, stopped Tehran from getting a bomb and helped the gulf states’ security all at once.
“It’s worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, if the whole thing could be achieved at the end of the day,” Menendez said. “That’s what I keep saying in the hope that Trump will hear it.”
The Graham-Menendez plan may never become U.S. policy. But they are right in one sense: Pressure on Iran alone is not going to force regime change, so there must be something else to follow. Trump genuinely wants to negotiate a new deal — and Congress can help him get there, if it decides to play its role.