Republicans in Congress will face a wrenching choice if President Trump follows through on decertifying the Iran nuclear deal.
Decertification would unlock a fast-track procedure for Congress to reimpose sanctions, leaving Republicans with two unappealing options.
Snap back the sanctions, and Iran likely walks, killing an agreement that top administration officials say is in the national interest. Do nothing, and the deal likely stands, preserving a pact that Republicans have lambasted for years.
For now, it appears that Republicans have little appetite for reviving the sanctions. Yet the pressure from hard-liners to act will be intense.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, signaled the GOP’s likely approach on Wednesday. He said the U.S. should demand Iranian compliance with the agreement but also impose new sanctions for activities outside the scope of the deal.
“As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it,” Royce said at the top of a hearing. “Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized. This committee will do its part tomorrow by marking-up the Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.”
Asked after the hearing whether he thinks Congress will reimpose the nuclear sanctions, Royce pointed back to his opening statement.
Trump faces a Sunday deadline to tell Congress whether Iran remains in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and whether the agreement remains in the national interest of the United States.
Trump has certified the deal twice before. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump relationship with Tillerson has been tense for months: report Bill O'Reilly: With Trump, Tillerson coverage, the media takes us all for 'morons' Overnight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad MORE, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts Trump, honor Obama’s agreement to release Guantanamo detainee MORE have said Iran is complying. Mattis testified to Congress that staying in the deal is in the United States’ national interest.
But Trump is widely expected to announce this week that he disagrees and is decertifying the deal.
Congress created the certification deadline in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). That law established a 60-day window for Congress to quickly snap back sanctions lifted under the deal. In the Senate, that fast-track process means only a simple majority is required to reimpose sanctions, so Democrats would not be able to block it.
As Trump’s announcement looms, congressional leaders have mostly demurred on the sanctions question.
Asked whether the Senate will take up sanctions legislation, spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) said Wednesday they had no announcements in advance of the president’s remarks.
Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE (R-Wis.) likewise told reporters last week he didn’t “want to get ahead of the president.”
One complicating factor is Trump’s feud with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerDeficit hawks voice worry over direction of tax plan The Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot MORE (R-Tenn.). As chairman, Corker would play a pivotal role in whatever the Senate decides to do.
The White House has made it clear that Trump’s problems with Corker stem at least in part from his stance on Iran. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday accused Corker of being complicit in the deal, saying he “rolled out the red carpet” for it.
Corker’s office rejected the accusation, pointing to Corker’s vote against the deal and his insistence on the passage of INARA. Without that law, Congress would not have a say in the deal at all.
Last week, Corker was tight-lipped about what he thinks will happen on Iran, saying he is “way, way, way too close” to the administration’s decision to comment. But he has talked generally about pushing back on Iran without scuttling the accord.
He noted the ramifications of walking away from a deal that the U.S. negotiated alongside China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
“As I’ve said before, you can only tear these things up one time,” Corker said last week when asked if he agrees with Mattis. “It might feel good for a second, but one of the things that’s important for us is to keep our allies with us, especially our Western allies, and so there are ways of dealing with this that can deal with the deficiencies that we all know are there and the agreement potentially stay in place.”
Outside groups who opposed the deal have also told Congress not to snap back sanctions.
At Wednesday’s House Foreign Affairs hearing, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said Trump should decertify the deal but that Congress should not reapply the sanctions.
Instead, Congress should pass legislation to improve the nuclear deal, Albright said. Specifically, he advocated for changing the law that requires the president to certify the deal every 90 days.
“The purpose of that is to straighten out one fundamental problem that is tough for this administration, which is that INARA makes it look like President Trump is certifying compliance with this deal,” Albright said. “INARA doesn’t actually do that, but it’s putting him in a position to defend an intractable position.”
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), now chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran, which lobbied hard against the agreement, predicted lawmakers wouldn’t reimpose sanctions.
“My guess is Congress will hold back if I’m hearing correctly from some of the people who spoke out about this,” he told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. “We will see what pressure builds.”
Even some of Congress’s staunchest Iran hawks have thrown cold water on the idea of approving a sanctions bill during the 60-day window.
At a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Ark.) argued for decertifying the deal, saying the threat of sanctions would force Iran to renegotiate. But he also said 60 days may not be enough time for that type of “coercive diplomacy” to work.
“I have no intention right now to introduce snapback sanctions legislation on Oct. 16,” Cotton said. “If it’s obvious by the end of that 60-day period that the course of action I’ve recommended will not work, then perhaps we will have to reimpose sanctions then. But I’m also willing to give the administration and our allies in Europe and the Middle East more time than just 60 days to try to get a better deal.”
Democrats are predicting Republicans won’t snap back sanctions.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said he doesn’t think Congress will reimpose sanctions because Iran would keep the money it’s already gotten from the deal.
“I don’t think they want to take back the car and let the dealer keep our money, too,” Sherman said.
Still, Iran hawks are railing against the deal ahead of the certification deadline.
“With Iran financing terror, overthrowing foreign governments, illegally test firing intercontinental ballistic missiles, chanting death to America, calling Israel the little Satan, America the great Satan, I would say that it was the wrong answer for us to be propping up the wrong regime with a jackpot of sanctions relief,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said.
“We should be ... turning this into a reasonable deal, not one that’s very one-sided and one where we got ridiculously played at the table.”