President-elect Donald Trump spent much of his campaign railing against the Iran nuclear deal, even raising the possibility of scrapping the agreement immediately upon taking office.
But many of the deal’s most ardent critics are now saying: “Slow down.”
As the reality of Donald Trump’s White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the deal.
It’s a remarkable moment for the anti-deal crowd, which includes Israel’s prime minister, Saudi princes and Republican lawmakers. Many tried to keep the deal from ever being reached, accused outgoing President Barack Obama of appeasing an enemy and used the agreement to knock Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Now that they have a shot at scuttling the deal they hate so much, they are urging caution.
GOP Sen. Bob Corker, who opposed the deal as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out against immediately discarding the deal in interviews with cable channels on both Wednesday and Tuesday. The problem is that, as part of the agreement, Iran already has accessed billions of dollars in once-frozen assets, Corker said. Plus, the U.S. is just one of seven countries involved in the deal, in which the United Nations and the European Union also play a role.
“We gave up … all of our leverage on the front end when we gave away the moneys that were stashed in various countries around the world and so now the leverage is with them,” Corker told MSNBC on Tuesday. “I think the beginning point is for us to cause them to strictly adhere [to the deal]. And I think that what we have to remember is, we have to keep the Europeans and others with us in this process.”
The July 2015 nuclear deal is not a treaty. It is a political arrangement put into force largely through presidential executive orders that suspended nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. In exchange for the lifting of such sanctions by the U.S., the EU and the U.N., Iran has dismantled its nuclear infrastructure.
Trump has been inconsistent about his view of the deal. He originally took a softer line than his GOP primary rivals, declining to say that he’d rip it up upon taking office. Rather, he promised to renegotiate it. But eventually, he told The American Israel Public Affairs Committee: “My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” If he wanted to, he could use his first day in office to issue executive orders to restore sanctions on Tehran and announce that the U.S. will no longer participate in panels that oversee the agreement.
Such an abrupt approach carries risks: It could badly harm America’s relations with other countries involved in the agreement, which took years to negotiate. Those countries, which include Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France, also could refuse to reimpose their own sanctions on Iran — European Union officials already have stressed to Trump their support for keeping the deal. And, of course, Iranian officials, who have urged Trump to honor the deal, would have an excuse to restart their nuclear program and eventually build a bomb.
“You don’t want all the blame for the deal falling apart to land on the U.S.,” argued David Ibsen, president of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that has spent months trying to persuade companies around the world not to invest in Iran despite the lifting of sanctions.
Ibsen and others said Trump can still save face on Iran by making it clear he is serious about enforcing the nuclear deal while also cracking down on Tehran’s nefarious activities.
For instance, since the nuclear agreement took effect almost a year ago, Iran has twice exceeded the limits on its heavy water stockpile, but the Obama administration has downplayed the incidents. Trump could be much more publicly harsh about these and other such apparent violations of the deal, the critics said. He could also use such incidents to rally other countries to warn Iran that it must not stray from the deal’s fine print.
Trump also could support efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran that do not have anything to do with the nuclear agreement. Even under the deal, the U.S. has kept in place sanctions that cover Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses, but Republicans in Congress are eager to pursue more such penalties. Obama aides have tried to fend off such moves out of concern that legislation could be used as a vehicle to undermine to the deal — or lead Iran to claim that it is.
Unhappiness with the nuclear deal is stemming largely from Republican ranks, but both parties are increasingly angry over Iran’s non-nuclear mischief. Iran’s role in supporting the Syrian regime against rebels, its ballistic missile tests, its aid to rebels in Yemen, and its spreading influence in Iraq and Lebanon are all signs of a country bent on becoming a regional behemoth. Iran also has imprisoned a handful of Americans under dubious circumstances; some in Congress view this as a new hostage crisis and are unhappy with the Obama administration’s seeming inability to respond.
One step Congress will likely take before Trump takes office is vote to renew the Iran Sanctions Act, a law on the verge of expiring. There’s broad support for this, even if, under the nuclear deal, many of the penalties the law includes are waived by the president. The White House, nervous about the optics of the nuclear deal, has downplayed the need for the legislation. It insists the president already has the authority he needs on Iran sanctions. But Trump could come out and loudly support renewing the law, sending a signal to Iran right before taking office.
Another way Trump can send a message is to halt Obama administration efforts to explain to foreign companies and banks whether they can do business with Iran without facing U.S. penalties. Deal critics have accused Obama aides of promoting investment in Iran, while the aides say they are just trying to clarify the new rules.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is among a relatively small group who wish to see Trump rapidly drop the nuclear deal.
“The United States, can, and in my opinion, should reimpose sanctions on Iran not just for violating the terms of the nuclear deal, but also for violating U.N. Security Council related to ballistic missiles or its support for terrorism, or its abuse of human rights,” he told MSNBC on Tuesday. “Of course we will work closely with the president-elect to try to take a harder line on Iran and give them a new sense of limits when it comes to United States interests in the region.”
But other major skeptics are not going that far.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly advised Trump on what to do, but much of the Israeli security establishment is supportive of the agreement even if Netanyahu isn’t. In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the opposition appears to have softened. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former government official whose views are said to reflect that of many in the monarchy, recently said Trump should not scrap the deal because doing so “willy-nilly, as it were, will have ramifications.” One strong possibility is that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states will urge Trump to offer them more military and intelligence assistance to counter Iran in places such as Yemen.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a prominent critic of the deal who’s been in touch with Trump aides. Dubowitz has long maintained that the next president should not kill the deal but rather try to create conditions that could pressure Iran to renegotiate it with terms more stringent toward the Islamic Republic.
It’s a difficult task: Iran, which is seeing its economy improve thanks to new investments and the unfreezing of its assets, has little incentive to come back to the table; and getting the Europeans, Russians and Chinese on-board for more talks could be near-impossible.
But if through tough enforcement Trump could show to the world that Iran is undermining both the letter and the spirit of the agreement, it might be possible, Dubowitz said. Republicans almost certainly will be on board.
“All of them believe that a better deal needs to be developed,” Dubowitz said.
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