Trump to Force Congress to Act on Iran Nuclear Deal

The strategy is an effort by the Trump administration to make the nuclear agreement only part of a multidimensional approach to pressure Iran on many fronts, including its missile program, its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and its intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad government.

But the administration has yet to articulate that broader strategy. As a result, the nuclear deal remains the fulcrum of the relationship with Iran — and a political football in Washington.

Congress will have to decide whether to reimpose sanctions, which could sink the deal, or use the prospect of that to force Iran — and the other parties to the deal — back to the negotiating table to make changes in the agreement.

That is the approach favored by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who has emerged as a leading hard-liner on Iran and is working closely with the White House to devise its strategy. On Thursday, Mr. Cotton met with Mr. Trump to discuss Iran and other issues.

“Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face,” Mr. Cotton said in a speech on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. Reimposing sanctions, he said, would be a “backward-looking step.”

Mr. Cotton said the United States and its allies should demand three changes to the deal: an elimination of “sunset clauses,” under which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities are phased out in less than 14 years; a strengthening of international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities; and a curbing the country’s ballistic and cruise-missile programs.

Democrats argue that Mr. Trump should certify the agreement, warning that the administration’s ability to press Iran on other activities it objects to would be compromised — rather than enhanced — if the United States threw the future of the agreement into question.

Britain, France and Germany, all signatories to the agreement, are watching Mr. Trump’s deliberations with deepening concern. Diplomats from the three countries, as well as from the European Union, met with dozens of senators this week to warn them that if the United States withdrew, Europe would not follow.

“For us, this is a high priority in our national security,” said Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to Washington. “We will stand by the Iran deal, and we want you not to walk away, but to comply with it. We share some of the grievances you have about Iran, and we can talk about it — and we should talk about it — but only on the basis of sticking to the deal.”

The deal is also contentious inside the administration. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have both urged Mr. Trump not to back out of it, in part because that would free Iran to begin producing uranium and reprocessing plutonium immediately, not after 13 years, as is stipulated in the agreement.

But Mr. Trump, after twice certifying the deal, has warned his aides that he would not do so again. As a result, the administration is looking for ways to claim Iran is in violation of the “spirit” of the accord, even if it has complied with inspection criteria. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that Iran was in compliance; when it has found minor violations, they have been quickly fixed.

The president could also decline to certify it by claiming that the deal is simply not in the national security interests of the United States.

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Two ballistic missiles and a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, were displayed last month at Baharestan Square in Tehran for the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war.

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Vahid Salemi/Associated Press..

While the White House said that Mr. Trump had not formally signed a decision memo on the certification issue, he tipped his hand in mid-September with a less heralded, but in many ways more important, decision. At that time, facing another congressionally imposed deadline, he agreed to renew an exemption on sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Trump said nothing about that decision, which he came to reluctantly in a series of National Security Council meetings.

Declining to recertify Iran’s compliance would amount to a compromise. Because it is simply a notification from the White House to Congress, it has no legal effect by itself. Mr. Trump could tell his supporters that he broke with President Barack Obama on the deal, without actually violating its terms.

“It appears to be part of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ strategy by the administration,” said Philip H. Gordon, who coordinated Middle East policy in the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

The risk, Mr. Gordon said, is that “while the administration may hope Congress refrains from passing new sanctions that cause the nuclear deal to collapse, no one can guarantee that outcome.” He noted that every Republican member of Congress voted against the deal.

The larger question is whether Mr. Trump’s “decertification” would gradually strangle the bigger goals of the nuclear negotiation: To integrate Iran with Western economies while assuring it cannot build a nuclear weapon for more than a decade.

If the Trump administration’s actions makes European banks fearful of lending billions to Iran to build new refineries, or expand other economic links with the West, it may fuel opposition to the deal inside Iran.

For its part, Iran has warned it would refuse to renegotiate the deal, or even talk about extending its length or conditions, unless the United States was also ready to make concessions on parts of the deal that have left it unhappy. While Mr. Trump argues that the United States paid too much up front in the deal to Iran, the Iranians reply that they were the ones who gave up most of their nuclear material before the arrangement went into effect.

“Are you prepared to return to us 10 tons of enriched uranium?” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, asked in an interview in New York in late September, referring to the stockpile of nuclear material — about 98 percent of the country’s nuclear fuel holdings — that Iran shipped out of the country in the opening moments of the accord.

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