Memo to Congressional Democrats: A Guide to Fix the Iran Nuclear Deal

Attention Obama-era devotees of the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear agreement: the train you hoped to stop is about to depart the station: President Trump will likely declare the deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA)) is not in America’s national security interest, and may “de-certify” Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

Among the P5+1 signatories to the JCPOA (China, Russia, France, UK, US, & Germany) which deem Iran in full compliance with the agreement (including the IAEA) – the United States will then stand alone — Trump asserting Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal. Never mind that Trump is obligated under the JCPOA to notify Congress within 10 days “if any potentially significant breach or compliance concern related to the deal” was discovered. No such notification has been sent to Congress from the White House.


So, what does Trump’s likely de-certifying Iran’s compliance mean?

From a technical perspective, Trump’s action kicks the Iran deal football back to Congress as his decision automatically triggers under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) a 60-day “fast track” clock whereby Congress can vote (on a simple majority in each house of Congress) to re-impose or “snap back” lifted economic sanctions. Senate Democrats would not be able to mount a filibuster. Should a majority of Republicans in the Senate and House vote to snap back sanctions Iran may declare the JCPOA “dead” and resume its nuclear bomb making program. But if Congress does nothing during the 60-day period the U.S. remains bound to the JCPOA.

At this juncture no one — least of all Congressional opponents of the JCPOA — believe they can muster enough Republican votes to reimpose sanctions – so a de-certification would usher in a precarious state of uncertainty as to its future.

An informal “whip” headcount of likely Senate Republicans leaning to kill the deal is short at least 10 votes. In his upcoming Iran speech Trump advisers are leaking all over DC he will not urge Senate Republicans to “snap back” sanctions. So, Face Saver-in Chief Trump will be able to assert to his base he acted on his campaign pledge to kill “the worst deal ever made” and then blame Congress for failing to “snap back” sanctions. But that does not mean Republican opponents, led by Senator Tom Cotton (R AR), are not going to attempt re-impose some sanctions. Then what? What happens if Iran provokes the U.S. with, let’s say, one of its signature unprovoked attacks on a U.S. naval ship in the Persian Gulf during the 60-day window to anger hold-out Senate Republicans? One cannot rule out that “known unknown.”

If waters are riled supporters of the JCPOA do not have a Plan B to keep it alive. Can Congressional Democrats fix the Iran nuclear agreement without enabling President Trump and Senate Republicans to nix it?

They can and they should. Unlike fine wine the JCPOA is not necessarily getting better with age. And herein lies the rub.


Democratic lawmakers can turn a page on a highly controversial deal that is opposed by a majority of Americans, of which a bare majority of Democrats (51%) approve, and stop paying Pollyannaish lip service to former Obama officials who cling to the deal as if it were some form of an internationally-blessed immaculate conception.

Politically-attuned Democrats need not play into Trump’s hands, but neither should they fall on their collective swords to protect a sputtering Obama legacy that is in desperate need of a major overhaul. Pretending that Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is a “get out of jail” card no matter how egregious is its ballistic missile program, or its support for Hezbollah, or its UN resolution- busting convention arms transfers to Assad or to the Taliban, is to pretend that Iran’s illicit conduct is beyond our ability to influence. That “head in the sand” attitude defended by Obama-era officials can no longer endure since their bet on Iran – that an agreement would temper Iran’s worst instincts and usher in some form of “détente” with the Ayatollah is proving to be a pipe dream. Indisputable Iranian mischief and provocations against American forces in the Middle East are accelerating by the day.

Also, let us not forget The Obama White House incessantly toyed with the repercussions of and underlying reality of the JCPOA and Iran’s duplicity in its blind dash to consummate the deal. The Obama national security team were willing naïfs in Iran’s rug bazaar by refusing even to add American prisoner release to the talks. Recall the notorious revelation that Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes publicly boasted how he intentionally mislead the press and the public on the deal and the Obama Administration’s negotiations. Worse, John Kerry came down with chronic case of Iran “clientitis” – glossing over all manner of Iranian dodges and hedges, such as absolving Iran from opening its military sites to IAEA inspectors, which it is obligated to do under the JCPOA.

In about eight years, Iran will become another nuclear version of North Korea. Tehran will be unshackled from its nuclear chains, all the while reaping billions in sanctions relief to speed up its nefarious behavior – conduct which former Obama minions dismiss as the price that the world had to pay for having lured Tehran to the negotiating table. That, they maintain, was a price worth paying to reach an agreement.

If Democrats are going to regain the White House in 2020 they desperately need new politically attuned foreign policy ideas which reap electoral results. Democratic and ndependent voters should not be an after-thought when Beltway day-dreamers conjure up foreign policy fairy dust.

So, Democrats – especially Senate Democrats – have a choice and a chance. They can sit on their hands and condemn Trump’s de-certification and oppose any Republican attempt to snap back sanctions, or they can use their leverage during this 60-day window to construct a rational and realistic approach to the post-Obama Iran Trump inherited.


French President Emmanuel Macron – who has been channeling Democratic foreign policy on climate change and trade (and filling a Democratic foreign policy vacuum) has cast a skeptical eye on Iran of late even though he remains committed to the JCPOA.

In a series of recent interviews President Macron floated the idea of renegotiating several provisions of the JCPOA and incorporating new provisions, including:

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1. Revising the sunset provision in the JCPOA which enables Iran to resume enrichment of uranium in 2025;

2. Clarifying IAEA inspectors’ access to Iran’s military installations to determine whether it is engaging in illegal nuclear activities in them.

3. Compelling Iran to ratify the so-called “Additional Protocols” to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would add more restrictions on the resumption of Iran’s military nuclear programs.

4. Reaching a broader, integrated agreement with Iran over its illegal ballistic missile program; and

5. Reconsidering several UN snap back sanctions unless Iran’s ceases its massive rearming of Hezbollah, and curtails its destabilizing activities in Lebanon, Syria and in Yemen.

Macron asserted that “tensions are on the rise” with Iran over its growing support for Hezbollah and its seizure of territory in Syria. Moreover, Macron also echoed U.S. views of the need to classify the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps as a global terrorist organization – a designation that neither the U.S. or its allies have imposed yet on the cat’s paw of Iran’s global terrorist reach.

These exceedingly reasonable French proposals reflect the reality of Iran’s belligerence and its dangerous aggression across the Middle East since the JCPOA came into force. If Macron is prepared to make them a cornerstone of French policy toward Iran, Democrats should do the same – it is a win-win because it aligns the Democratic Party with the one government in Europe that is prepared to mediate differences between Washington and Tehran.


Macron’s deft diplomacy is producing some positive signals from Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif reportedly informed the P5+1 on the sidelines of last month’s UNGA and via the so-called Iran-U.S. Oman “back-channel” that it would:

1. Submit its missile tests to “international arbitration” to reassure the West that its missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads.

2. Consider an amendment to the JCPOA which would end the “sunset” provisions governing Iran JCPOA compliance in exchange for a full lifting of sanctions based on IAEA certification of its obligations under a revised JCPOA – a goal sought by Israel; and

3. Agree to ratify the NPT “Additional Protocols.”

With all things Iran the devil is in the details, and pressure must not be lost on Iran to ensure it is the West’s agenda, not Iran’s, which is on the table.


How can Democrats seize this opportunity?

Assuming Trump carries through on his threat to decertify), Senate Democrats should propose that during the 60-day window that the IANRA be amended to:

* Extend the next certification period to 180 days to provide a “buffer” to provide time for French President Macron to attempt to convince Iran to reopen the JCPOA for further negotiations based on French proposals.

* Should Iran refuse to reopen negotiations Congress at the end of this 180-day period would then have a new 60-day window to vote on a simple majority whether or not to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Obviously, how Iran redresses these grievances during this period will speak volumes how Democrats should proceed – whether to vote for or against new sanctions.

* During this 180-day window, Senate Democrats should support declaring the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization to evidence their determination to hold Iran accountable for its continued malign conduct against U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Even though I could not find a reasonable alternative to the JCPOA when it was dumped on the public in 2015 – it has left a bitter taste since it accorded Iran a green light to act with impunity against American interests abroad.

In view of Trump’s impending announcement, Congressional Democrats have a chance to develop a new approach to Iran that does not play into Trump’s hands. A legislatively created diplomatic initiative that buys time for President Macron to test his handiwork and avoids a collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement could help bridge trans-Atlantic tensions inside NATO and the European Union and, well, turn JCPOA lemons into lemonade.


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