Washington Examiner, By Joel Gehrke
Thursday, 10 October 2017
President Trump should try to negotiate new restrictions on Iran's "malign behavior" without declaring an international nuclear deal with the regime at odds with American interests, according to a Senate Democratic foreign policy leader.
"Call on Congress to join him in a bipartisan way in supporting the tougher measures we should be taking against Iran," Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Tuesday. "That would demonstrate genuine leadership domestically."
Coons proposed that course as an alternative to Trump's expected decision to tell Congress that the Iran nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is not in the national security interests of the United States. Such an announcement could lead the Congress to impose economic sanctions on the regime, the senator suggested, which would amount to the United States breaking the pact.
Trump's national security team and congressional allies have debated how best to convince Iran and European allies to begin those talks. To that end, the president is expected to declare that the current deal is not in U.S. interests, and then use the looming threat of sanctions to bring Iran back to the table. Coons argued that even that course would give away the opportunity for "a focused period of negotiation," and wouldn't help create that opportunity as the Iran hawks believe.
"I think his leverage would be at a maximum if he issued a signing statement and said: 'I am re-certifying to Congress that it is in the national security interests of the United States to stay in the JCPOA,'" Coons said. "‘But I am gravely concerned about Iran's malign behavior ... and the flaws that I see in the deal ... and so, I am calling on my allies in Congress and our partners in this deal to dedicate the next 90 days to a focused period of negotiation. Which, if it fails, I will then exit the JCPOA.' That's a much more direct way to do it."
The senator emphasized that Trump should not decertify Iran, given that international monitors have not reported any violations of the deal that rise to the level of a "material" breach of the agreement by Iran. Coons even expressed interest in changing federal law to relieve Trump of the requirement that he give his imprimatur to the deal every 90 days, in order to decrease the likelihood that Trump walks away.
"My understanding is that the president finds it personally objectionable to certify to Congress that a deal that he campaigned against, and that he intensely dislikes, is in the national security interests of the United States," Coons said. "I am willing to talk about seeking an amendment to [federal law] if that's what's required to get the president to continue to embrace the JCPOA, to the extent it is functioning to restrain Iran's nuclear program."
Trump has certified that Iran is in compliance with the agreement that the deal is in American national security interests twice since taking office, under a federal law that requires such a review every 90 days. He is expected to change course in advance of the Oct. 15 deadline for a third certification, contrary to the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior members of the national security team.
Coons' proposal that Trump issue a signing statement amounts to an intervention, on the side of Mattis and other advisors, in an internal administration debate about how best to convince Iran and Europe to start negotiating new restrictions on Iran's missile program and other aggression in the region.
"There are no big fans of the deal within the administration," said one expert who advises the administration, on condition of anonymity. "The main divisions are, really, what do we do to try to fix the deal?"
The president's preference for declaring the deal inconsistent with U.S. interests has some prominent congressional allies, however. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has argued that he should refuse to certify the deal, but then delay walking away from the pact entirely. That would give time to negotiate new terms to the agreement to counter various forms of Iranian aggression, according to the Arkansas Republican.
Coons worries that Congress will come under pressure to impose sanctions after Trump declares the deal contrary to American interests. "The president could successfully stir up action in Congress that would blow up this deal, which I do not understand to be his policy goal, but may end up being the political outcome," he said. "The result would be that Congress would then be responsible for blowing up the deal, not the president."