Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal

Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE on Friday threatened to terminate U.S. participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) later this spring if America’s allies and Iran do not agree to changes in the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement. Following the announcement, action now shifts to Capitol Hill, where Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama MORE (R-Tenn.), Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonChina sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead On The Trail: Pence's knives come out MORE (R-Ark.), and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  Congress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (D-Md.) have already quietly begun negotiations over amending U.S. sanctions laws on Iran. The Trump administration would like to change U.S. law to increase pressure on Iran and on U.S. allies to agree to changes in the JCPOA’s terms.

As Congress negotiates with Trump, however, Congress should make two demands of its own. First, Congress should insist that new legislation direct the Trump administration to work with allies to seek a successor agreement to the JCPOA, rather than simply unilaterally rewriting the JCPOA’s terms. Second, Congress should insist that any new legislation give Congress the right to review a decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal. Congress should refuse to pass any new legislation that does not meet both demands.

The Trump administration and bipartisan members of Congress are understandably concerned about the JCPOA’s “sunsets,” which will allow Iran to expand its nuclear program starting a decade from now. A number of U.S. allies, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have also expressed concern about the sunsets and appear open to negotiating a “follow-on” agreement to the JCPOA that would impose future restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.

But U.S. allies also remain strong supporters of the JCPOA itself, which represents the toughest nuclear agreement in a generation and guarantees that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon during the JCPOA’s time frame. The agreement also headed off a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East at a time when the region is already rife with crisis. New U.S. legislation that unilaterally changes the terms of the JCPOA will simply divide the United Stats from allies who would otherwise be willing to join America in seeking new terms from Iran while potentially spurring Iran to resume nuclear activities that the JCPOA prohibits.

Instead of unilaterally dictating new terms, legislation should define parameters for new negotiations with Iran and direct the Trump administration to work with allies to achieve them. Congress can also strengthen sanctions on Iranian activities outside the JCPOA, such as targeted sanctions on corruption and repression following Iran’s brutal crackdown on the street protests that spread across the country last month.

The second demand Congress should make is to limit the Trump administration’s ability to withdraw from the deal by requiring it to submit any new executive branch sanctions to Congress for review if the sanctions undercut America’s JCPOA commitments. Currently, U.S. law allows Congress to review a decision by the President to waive sanctions if Iran begins to violate the JCPOA’s nuclear terms. But current law does not authorize Congress review a Trump administration decision to impose new sanctions that violate America’s obligations under the deal.

This creates a major challenge for U.S. allies considering whether to join Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the JCPOA. Even if the European Union and other allies join Trump in pressing Iran over new nuclear limits, Trump could nonetheless terminate the JCPOA at any time by reimposing sanctions that violate America’s JCPOA commitments. This risk is heightened by fact that Trump has already pulled the United States out of other international agreements, such as the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

Allies also look at U.S. domestic policy, where Trump has altered his position on issues such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program and the specifics of health care and tax policy. Allies will be wary of joining Trump in pressing to change the JCPOA’s terms if Trump might simply terminate U.S. participation in the agreement anyway.

Congress, however, can reassure America’s allies by requiring Trump to submit any new sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports, two of the most important sanctions suspended by the JCPOA, to Congress before any such new sanctions come into force. This would provide reassurance that the United States will honor its commitments in the years to come.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress should welcome increased oversight. Congress has been a driving force on U.S. policy on Iran since 2010, when Congress began passing the sanctions that ultimately forced Iran to the negotiating table. Strong oversight is also consistent with Congress’s constitutional role in sanctions policy, which derives from Congress’s power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.”

The next four months will see high stakes negotiations as the State Department, Treasury Department, and the White House work to implement the policies Trump announced last week. There is a distinct possibility that the JCPOA will collapse as the Trump administration starts increasing pressure on allies and Iran to agree to new terms. Congress, however, can increase the odds of a successful outcome by directing Trump to work with allies to change the JCPOA rather than unilaterally dictating new terms and by providing for congressional oversight to any future U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

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.