The best course of action for Congress on Iran? Do nothing

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This week, President Trump is expected to decertify that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement. The Trump administration then plans to ask Congress to consider new legislation that could reimpose sanctions on Iran while laying out U.S. positions for renegotiating the nuclear pact. But Congress is under no obligation to act on Trump’s request.

The simple fact is that Congress should refuse to consider new legislation. Instead, congressional leaders should demand that the Trump administration develop and execute a credible international diplomatic game plan on Iran. Congress should also press the administration implement a new Iran sanctions law that Congress already passed this past July, but which the Trump administration has yet to implement.

{mosads}Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a 2015 statute that provides congressional oversight of the JCPOA, every 90 days Trump is required to certify whether or not Iran is complying with the deal. Trump has already certified Iranian compliance twice since January, in April and July, but since July Trump has indicated he does not think Iran is complying with the “spirit” of the JCPOA. The next certification deadline is Oct. 15, and Trump apparently plans to announce both his decision to stop certifying Iranian compliance and a broader U.S. strategy towards Iran before that date.

Administration officials have been signaling publicly and privately that they will ask Congress to pass new legislation on Iran following Trump’s announcement. Broadly speaking, Congress could consider two types of legislation: legislation that would reimpose sanctions on Iran or legislation that would amend INARA to lay out parameters for renewed negotiations with Iran with the threat of sanctions if Iran fails to agree to the new terms. Congress should refuse to consider either type of legislation.

There are several reasons Congress should pursue a “do nothing” approach. Because international watchdogs such as the International Atomic Energy Agency broadly agree that Iran is meeting its nuclear commitments, U.S. allies would view legislation that re-imposes sanctions on Iran as violating the commitments the U.S. made under the JCPOA. Such legislation would open a severe rift with our allies and could prompt Iran to restart nuclear activities it ceased under the JCPOA.

In recent days administration and congressional officials have hinted that, rather than asking for legislation to immediately reimpose sanctions, Trump may ask Congress to pass legislation that would modify INARA to demand specific changes to the JCPOA. Sanctions would be reimposed only if Iran failed to agree to the changes within a specific timeframe. But this approach is also dangerous. Legislation of this type would erode the Trump administration’s flexibility to actually renegotiate specific JCPOA terms with Iran and would likely set the JCPOA for collapse if renegotiations fails.

Like many experts who have worked on Iran, I am highly skeptical that the Trump administration will be able to convince either Iran or U.S. allies to agree to major changes to the JCPOA’s terms. Both Iran and our European partners have shown little inclination to renegotiate. While Trump might be able to secure relatively modest changes to the deal, a decision by Congress to tie Trump’s hands to specific, hard-to-achieve negotiating positions would only make the administration’s task of negotiations harder. Artificial deadlines for renegotiations would also decrease, rather than increase, the odds of success, given the complexity of nuclear negotiations and the need for intricate, multi-country diplomacy.

Finally, Congress itself is deeply divided on key Iran issues, including whether the JCPOA serves U.S. national interests, and congress has demonstrated scant ability this year to pass complex, nuanced legislation. Even if individual members of congress try to negotiate in good faith with the Trump administration on legislation, the odds are that politically-charged amendments and other proposals would derail any legislative gameplan. So what should Congress do instead of considering legislation? Broadly speaking, congressional leaders should make two demands of the Trump administration itself.

First, Congress should demand that the Trump administration articulate and execute a strategy to build international support for renegotiating the JCPOA. To date, despite the administration’s repeated criticism of Iran, Trump and his Cabinet have made virtually no progress in convincing Germany, France and other key U.S. allies to join the U.S. in demanding that Iran agree to change the JCPOA’s terms. Congress should demand that Trump obtain agreement from Germany, the U.K., France and other key allies on how to renegotiate the JCPOA and deal with Iran’s other illicit activities before setting negotiating terms into U.S. law.

Second, Congress is rightly critical of Iranian activities that destabilize the Middle East and harm U.S. interests. But Congress in July already passed tough new sanctions that target Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile program. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has yet to issue executive orders implementing the sanctions designations of specific companies for violating them. Congress should press Trump to aggressively implement these new sanctions before asking Congress to pass new laws.

Trump’s decision to decertify Iran as complying with the JCPOA is undoubtedly a high-risk decision. It significantly increases the odds of the landmark nuclear agreement collapsing in the months ahead. But Congress would only raise those risks by passing new legislation against Iran. Instead, Congress should keep the onus on the Trump Administration to show that it can executive deft international diplomacy towards Iran while using tools it already has to counter the Iranian threat.

Peter Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration.

Tags Congress Foreign policy Iran National security Nuclear weapons United States

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