Corker 'semi-hopeful' on Iran legislation as key deadline passes

Corker 'semi-hopeful' on Iran legislation as key deadline passes
© Greg Nash

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday he’s “semi-hopeful” Congress and the White House will come to an agreement on Iran deal legislation, as a deadline to quickly re-impose nuclear sanctions passes without action.

“We’ve been having very good meetings with the White House and national security staff, and I think we’re making progress. And with our communications with the Europeans,” Corker told reporters Tuesday in response to a question from The Hill. “Everything that is being done is being done with [committee ranking Democrat Sen.] Ben [Cardin (Md.)]. He was with me last week at the White House. So, you know, we’re not there yet, but we are making progress.

“I’m semi-hopeful we may be successful.”

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Tuesday marks 60 days since President Trump announced he would not certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the landmark Obama-era deal that lifted sanctions in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.

Trump’s decision set off a 60-day clock for Congress to use a fast-track procedure to re-impose sanctions lifted in the deal. But rather than press for that, Trump asked Congress to pass legislation to fix issues he sees with the deal itself.

If Congress doesn’t act, Trump said at the time, he’ll withdraw from the deal.

In response, Corker unveiled a proposal to amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), the law Congress passed in 2015 to ensure it has oversight of the nuclear deal. The proposal aimed to effectively eliminate the nuclear deal’s so-called sunset provisions by snapping back sanctions if Iran restarts those activities, even after the provisions expire. 

But Democrats said that would amount to unilaterally rewriting the terms of the deal, which they would not support. They also said they wouldn’t back anything that doesn’t have the support of European allies.

Asked Tuesday if he shares Corker’s assessment of the progress on talks, Cardin said he and Corker are on the same page.

“From the beginning, I think Sen. Corker and I have been saying the same thing,” Cardin said. “I might put it a little different emphasis on it, but we’re not going to do anything that would lead to violation of the JCPOA, and we need to have European support. So Sen. Corker and I have gone over that with the administration, and I think they are in conversations with Europeans, and we’ll see where it ends.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal.

In general, Cardin added, it makes sense to revisit INARA given the change in administration since it was passed.

“It’s right to take a look at INARA, to see whether that relationship between the executive and legislative branch needs to be modified. So we’re prepared to do that,” Cardin said. “What the administration, I think, is asking us to do is go beyond that and look at ways in which we can interject ourselves into compliance with the JCPOA, particularly post-sunset. And that’s an issue that, as I said, we won’t do anything that violates the JCPOA and we need Europe’s support.”

The next deadline on the Iran deal is in January, when Trump has to decide whether to continue waiving sanctions lifted as part of the agreement.

Corker said he’s mindful of that timeframe, but that Trump has indicated he won’t tear up the deal at that point if progress on legislation continues.

“Again, we’re not there, but it’s moving along. The language is developing,” Corker said.

Cardin, though, was pessimistic Trump would maintain the deal even if Congress acts.

“We could act, and they could blow it up, too,” Cardin said. “This president has shown reckless behavior.”

One complicating factor in getting European support could be Trump’s decision last week to announce that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which European allies opposed.

Corker, though, said he doesn’t think that will have an effect. If it does, he added, it might make Europeans more likely to support Iran deal changes as it shows Trump will fulfill campaign promises regardless of international opposition. 

“If anything, he made a campaign promise that he was going to move the capital to Jerusalem … they went through it,” Corker said. “He’s also said some things about the Iran deal, so my sense is it could have the other effect, that they realize he will do these things and therefore they may be more willing to work with us.”