What Congress Should Do Now About Iran

You’re a member of Congress who opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the grounds that the plan had critical flaws and the Obama administration had in essence given away too much without permanently cutting off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. However, you correctly recognized that President Trump’s decertification stunt would alienate allies, give Iran the high ground and threaten to unravel the JCPOA with nothing to take its place.

What’s more, you’ve now heard that Trump is threatening to impose sanctions in January to effectively end the deal.

What in the world do you do now, especially if you are a Democrat seeing the president try to make you and your party an accessory to a foreign policy catastrophe?

Maybe Democrats go along with the proposal from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to create penalties for breach of the JCPOA, as well as a penalty in case Iran does not negotiate on removal of the sunset clause. That, however, seems unlikely because Congress does not trust this president and really cannot gauge whether the actions would trigger the end of the JCPOA.

Corker may work some magic, but right now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards unless Congress can manage to pull back Trump’s unilateral waiver authority. (Congress also should take the opportunity to redraft the waiver authority and the recertification requirement. Congress would need to approve reimplementation of sanctions — that is, take unilateral authority away from the president — and do away with certification in exchange for full transparency and information-sharing with Congress on the status of the deal and on Iran’s behavior.)

Democrats understandably want to be partners, not stagehands in the president’s theatrical productions. If Corker’s effort doesn’t bear fruit, Congress might ignore decertification and focus in a bipartisan way to set new standards for dealing with Iran on a list of items including its missile testing, the sunset clause, Iran’s regional aggression and so on.

In other words, Congress could craft the policy the administration won’t, with flexible benchmarks for progress.

That’s the suggestion of long-time Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. He urges that we “invite the British, French and German ambassadors for quiet discussions before finalizing the legislation and work genuinely to make this a bipartisan product, meaning Democrats need to be involved in crafting this lest it become again not a national policy but a narrow political policy.”

Benchmarks that relate to changes to the JCPOA (e.g., enhanced inspections) would unify the United States and the European Union and provide the negotiating position to bargain with Iran. Benchmarks that are not directly covered by the JCPOA could be the basis for joint US-EU action on non-nuclear sanctions.

The real problem here is winning back the trust of Europeans so we can present a united front and pressure Iran on both nuclear and non-nuclear items.

Ross explains, “The Europeans will be open to some of our concerns as long as they can preserve the JCPOA — and here is the challenge for the administration and the Congress: how to get the Europeans to see that the key to the maintenance of the deal depends on meeting at least some of our concerns.” He suggests that “the administration requires a calibrated diplomacy that reflects our leverage but does not overplay our hand and permits the Europeans the time to see that we are making a good faith effort and not simply seeking a cover to walk away. ” But who thinks this administration is capable of doing any of that?

Ross offers an intriguing proposal: “A premium needs to be put on [the] administration that can orchestrate a complicated set of discussions and in a way that they support and don’t undercut each other,” he says. “That is why I think an outside senior figure who has credibility should be appointed . . . [who] would convey a message of good faith to the Europeans and help give them an explanation with their own publics.”

That would, in essence, take the administration and the president out of the day-to-day haggling over the deal and not make Congress the fall guys if things go wrong (e.g., if legislation triggers a collapse of the JCPOA). Why not former senator Joe Lieberman or former CIA director Robert Gates or former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams? Someone of that caliber could help defuse tensions between the United States and the E.U. and convey a level of seriousness without rattling our allies. If nothing else, appointment of a negotiator could soothe the president, who would be assured that we are doing “something.” (The trick, of course, is getting Trump to be quiet and let such a person do his job.)

Unfortunately, there are no great options here and a very, very problematic American president. We’ll need to find a way to muddle through. Corker has suggested one avenue; we’ve come up with another. Perhaps Democrats have a third approach. Everyone in the effort, however, would need to agree that the purpose is not to destroy the JCPOA and get into a military confrontation with Iran but to strengthen the deal and Western resolve to contain Iran.

The Washington Post