Set­back for Trump on Iran deal leg­is­la­tion

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - By MICHAEL WIL­NER Jerusalem Post Cor­re­spon­dent

WASH­ING­TON – A top Se­nate Repub­li­can is shelv­ing draft leg­is­la­tion that would have trig­gered nu­clear-re­lated sanc­tions back on Iran over its bal­lis­tic mis­sile ac­tiv­ity, ac­knowl­edg­ing it can­not gar­ner the 50 votes re­quired for pas­sage and would os­tra­cize for­eign al­lies, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Ten­nessee), chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, con­tin­ues to work with mem­bers of his own party, Democrats, Euro­pean en­voys and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hop­ing to con­struct leg­is­la­tion that will send a mes­sage of tough­ness to Tehran while keep­ing the nu­clear ac­cord in­tact. But the amend­ment he ini­tially pre­viewed one month ago with Sen. Tom Cot­ton (R-Arkansas), along­side Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s na­tional ad­dress on Iran pol­icy, will not ad­vance as planned.

It is a set­back for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which in its roll­out of a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy ap­proach to Iran char­ac­ter­ized Corker and Cot­ton’s bill as a “leg­isla­tive rem­edy” to its con­cerns with the Iran nu­clear deal. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son re­quested a vote on it within 90 days.

Thirty days into that time frame, Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have not yet en­gaged with any of the mod­er­ate Democrats they

would need to pass rel­e­vant leg­is­la­tion. They have not yet brought on board their Euro­pean al­lies, who were rep­re­sented in Wash­ing­ton this week lob­by­ing law­mak­ers against tak­ing any dra­matic ac­tion. And for­eign pol­icy lead­er­ship in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives is en­tirely in the dark on what’s to come. One top Repub­li­can aide char­ac­ter­ized the talks as three-way ne­go­ti­a­tions among Se­nate Repub­li­cans, Se­nate Democrats and Euro­pean diplo­mats, with the pres­i­dent and his aides tak­ing a back seat.

Corker and Cot­ton’s leg­is­la­tion would have amended the Iran Nu­clear Agree­ment Re­view Act – it­self co-au­thored by Corker back in 2015 – to ef­fec­tively ex­tend pro­vi­sions of the Iran nu­clear deal in­def­i­nitely in the eyes of US law. The amend­ment would have in­sti­tuted trig­gers for US sanc­tions on Iran that had been lifted by the deal, tar­get­ing not only Iran’s obli­ga­tions un­der the ac­cord but also mat­ters not ad­dressed in the deal it­self.

Repub­li­cans be­lieve that Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile work is in­her­ently tied to its nu­clear pro­gram, as th­ese de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles are uniquely de­signed to carry nu­clear pay­loads. But the six world pow­ers that ne­go­ti­ated the deal with Iran – the US, UK, France, Ger­many, Rus­sia and China – left bal­lis­tic mis­siles out of the agree­ment after Iran ar­gued the tech­nol­ogy was in fact a con­ven­tional weapons sys­tem.

Im­me­di­ately upon its pub­lic re­lease, the Corker-Cot­ton amend­ment was roundly con­demned by Euro­pean gov­ern­ments and Democrats as an ef­fort to uni­lat­er­ally rene­go­ti­ate the closed, two-year-old agree­ment.

“Corker has now ad­mit­ted that he has shelved it, be­cause it was a non-starter,” said one top Se­nate aide in­ti­mately in­volved with the ne­go­ti­a­tions. “ICBMs [in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles] won’t be a part of it, rel­e­vant to any JCPOA leg­is­la­tion.” The top aide was re­fer­ring to the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion, the for­mal name for the 2015 nu­clear ac­cord.

Corker’s of­fice did not deny claims that he has moved on from the amend­ment: “Sen. Corker con­tin­ues to talk with Sen. [Ben] Cardin [D-Mary­land], Sen. Cot­ton, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion about the ap­pro­pri­ate path for­ward,” said the chair­man’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor.

Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic aides both say that a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus has formed against tak­ing any leg­isla­tive ac­tion that would ma­te­ri­ally breach the agree­ment, or that would in­sti­tute a struc­ture sure to trig­ger a breach of the agree­ment. Democrats are specif­i­cally op­posed to any link­age of Iran’s ICBMs with the nu­clear deal, or the adop­tion of any au­to­matic trig­gers that would im­pose new sanc­tions without ex­ec­u­tive or­der or con­gres­sional de­bate.

On the Hill this week, the Euro­pean Union’s top for­eign pol­icy en­voy, Fed­er­ica Mogherini, said she wit­nessed this con­sen­sus in her meet­ings.

“We are ex­chang­ing views with the leg­is­la­tors on the need to make sure, be­fore a bill is pre­sented, that its con­tents do not rep­re­sent a vi­o­la­tion of the agree­ment,” she said. “I got clear in­di­ca­tions that the in­ten­tion is to keep the United States in com­pli­ance with the agree­ment.”

Law­mak­ers are work­ing against two time lines, both of which may prove ar­bi­trary. The first is a for­mal 60-day re­view pe­riod legally prompted by Trump’s de­ci­sion not to “cer­tify” Iran’s per­for­mance in the nu­clear deal last month. The law re­quests Congress now con­sider “qual­i­fy­ing leg­is­la­tion” that would reim­pose sanc­tions on Iran. But no ac­tion is re­quired, and no party – nei­ther Hill Repub­li­cans nor the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion – wants to take this path.

The sec­ond time­line is a 90-day pe­riod pro­posed by Tiller­son, mo­ti­vated by the pres­i­dent’s de­sire to avoid pub­licly “cer­ti­fy­ing” Iran’s com­pli­ance to the nu­clear deal ev­ery 90 days – an­other le­gal re­quire­ment. But the Se­nate par­lia­men­tar­ian – the of­fi­cial ad­viser to the cham­ber on the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of its stand­ing rules and pro­ce­dures – has been asked by Repub­li­can law­mak­ers whether, after de­cer­ti­fy­ing once in Oc­to­ber, Trump will have to take ac­tion yet again in two months’ time. “It’s not clear un­der the law if one non-cer­ti­fi­ca­tion clears him for fu­ture cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, or if he’ll have to is­sue a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion de­ci­sion again,” one aide said.

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on this re­port.

De­spite the “lack of pa­per,” or progress, Democrats and Repub­li­cans both seem in­tent on sat­is­fy­ing Trump’s ap­petite for ac­tion, cog­nizant that their fail­ure to pass any­thing by the new year will likely in­cur his wrath and blame.

In the words of one Demo­cratic aide, the pres­i­dent’s threat to pull out of the deal whole­sale ab­sent leg­isla­tive ac­tion “does have some weight, in that Congress does not want to be the pres­i­dent’s scape­goat here.

“There’s a bi­par­ti­san sense that they want to ap­proach INARA to­gether,” the aide said, re­fer­ring to the Iran Nu­clear Agree­ment Re­view Act. “But it’s the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s job to bring Europe along.

Three con­gress­men said that the en­tire ne­go­ti­a­tion comes down to Corker and his Demo­cratic coun­ter­part on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Cardin, who last month af­firmed that a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus had formed against any ac­tion that would tor­pedo the nu­clear deal and harm the transat­lantic al­liance.

Leg­isla­tive fixes to INARA will have to pro­ceed through that com­mit­tee, where Corker sets hear­ings and votes.

But Cot­ton and his al­lies are still in­sist­ing on tough ac­tion that shows Iran the US will not ac­cept the nu­clear deal as it is. And this fac­tion of the Repub­li­can Cau­cus is warn­ing against a leg­isla­tive ap­proach that ul­ti­mately le­git­imizes the nu­clear ac­cord – the very op­po­site ef­fect Trump was hop­ing for when he threw the fate of the deal to Congress last month.

“It’s like when [then-sec­re­tary of state] John Kerry said no deal is bet­ter than a bad deal,” said one Repub­li­can con­sul­tant closely work­ing with Cot­ton’s team. “In this case, no leg­is­la­tion is bet­ter than bad leg­is­la­tion.” •

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