President Donald Trump issued this month his final ultimatum to Congress regarding the Obama-era Iran nuclear agreement: You fix it, or I’ll nix it.
But in laying out his criteria for legislation, the president opened the door to countless loopholes that defenders of the deal might try to exploit. If Trump lets them, he’ll unknowingly share responsibility with his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for facilitating and legitimizing a nuclear-armed Iran.
The president, for example, said that any legislation “must demand that Iran allow immediate inspections at all sites requested by international inspectors.” The problem, of course, is that international inspectors have yet to request access to any Iranian military sites for fear that Iran will not comply with such requests. The condition is meaningless in that, technically, Iran is already complying with it.
The question should not be whether Iran complies with requests that never come. Congress, rather, should be asking the intelligence community to identify which Iranian military sites merit inspections and figuring out a way to force inspections at those sites. The former leaves a bad deal in place. The latter might change a fundamental flaw.
Another area of concern relates to key provisions of the nuclear deal that expire in just a few years, leaving Iran free to operate advanced centrifuges and build up an industrial-sized enrichment capability. The president says the legislation he wants from Congress must end these so-called sunsets by threatening to “automatically resume” the tough economic sanctions waived under the deal should any provision be violated, “not just for ten years, but forever.”
This sounds tough, but how Congress writes it into law will determine whether it ever actually happens. An automatic resumption of sanctions should be just that - upon receiving credible information that Iran has violated some condition of legislation, the president must reimpose all sanctions waived under the nuclear deal. But what if Congress legislates an off-ramp or two - a cooling-off period for a future Congress to reconsider whether sanctions should indeed snap back into place? Is an automatic resumption of sanctions still automatic if a future Congress can first vote to block that resumption if Iran ever crosses a red line?
Even if the issue of inspections and sunsets can be resolved, one final issue is likely to emerge above all others as a flashpoint between deal supporters and opponents: Iran’s ballistic missile program. How Congress handles this issue will determine whether Trump can truly fix the Iran deal or not.
A fatal flaw of the nuclear deal was its failure to tie Iran’s development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to the sanctions relief provided by the United States. A deal that leaves Iran’s enrichment infrastructure largely intact while allowing the regime to perfect its delivery systems will lead to a second North Korea-style crisis in just a few short years.
“Iran’s development and testing of missiles should be subject to severe sanctions,” the president said, leaving Congress to fill in the details. A real fix for the Iran nuclear deal, like one introduced in the House of Representatives last week by Rep. Peter Roskam, would tie the president’s automatic resumption of sanctions to “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.” After all, that’s the language used by the U.N. Security Council.
A phony fix might only address long-range missiles that don’t even exist yet, legitimizing Iran’s perfection of short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of wiping out U.S. bases, allies, and interests. A fake fix, like the one under discussion in the Senate, might also detach Iran’s missile activity from the automatic resumption of sanctions, instead outlining lesser sanctions that will never successfully deter the mullahs from pressing forward with their illicit missile program.
Would Congress really be willing to enact legislation that punishes Iran more harshly for building an advanced centrifuge than for testing a missile that could wipe out Israel or decimate Saudi Arabia and Eastern Europe? Certainly not when you say it like that.
Therein lies the danger of the coming negotiation over legislation to fix the nuclear deal. Every caveat and exception written into a bill can entirely change its impact without diminishing its veneer. Legislation that produces no inspections of Iranian military sites, an off-ramp for a future Congress to maintain sunsets, and a legitimization of Iran’s existing ballistic-missile program can easily be made to look like a fix - but it wouldn’t be a fix at all.
Trump gave Congress 120 days to improve the Iran deal. A false solution would be bad for the United States and its allies. If deal opponents in Congress can’t get the votes for a proper fix, the president should nix the deal rather than allow its defenders to nix his last, best chance to fix it.
Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.