Democrats and other defenders of the Iran nuclear deal have all but given up on President Donald Trump as he prepares to push the pact to the brink.
So they’ve adopted a new strategy, if you can call it that: Appeal to cooler heads in Trump’s orbit who want to keep the agreement in place, their boss’ rhetoric notwithstanding. The aim is to avoid further inflaming tensions with U.S. allies or slowly strangling the deal after Trump declares Tehran out of compliance, which is expected to happen as soon as Thursday.
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European diplomats, former U.S. officials and like-minded activists are joining in with a ramped-up lobbying effort designed to dissuade the GOP-led Congress from responding to Trump by reimposing sanctions that are likely to destroy the deal.
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat and a critic of the original deal, warned that Trump would enter “uncharted waters” by decertifying Iran’s compliance.
“I think that maybe it’ll make the president feel good,” Engel said in a recent interview. “It might make me feel good. But it’s not the right thing to do.”
It’s unclear whether Republicans could round up the votes to slap sanctions back on Iran even if they want to. Several GOP senators are openly wary of a sanctions vote that could allow Tehran to evade the terms of the nuclear pact after getting relief from U.S. and European economic penalties.
But it’s also an open question as to how a GOP riven by internal tensions would treat a high-stakes pitch from Trump to — rather than reimpose sanctions — craft a new agreement that’s even tougher on Iran. A White House official said Tuesday that Trump plans to draw a line between decertifying and pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, but that distinction may be lost on some Iran hawks.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters on Tuesday that he has warned administration officials that decertifying “will be misunderstood by our allies and our adversaries, and that it puts at great risk the possibility that Congress will instead” reimpose sanctions.
Coons was one of several Democratic senators who met last week with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the leader of an ongoing Iran policy review that’s expected to flesh out Trump’s plans to decertify the deal without withdrawing.
Still, Democrats and other proponents of remaining in the agreement are skeptical that Trump can walk the line between getting tougher on Iran and torpedoing the nuclear accord — especially after his bombastic rhetoric towards Iran at last month’s United Nations General Assembly. They’re highlighting comments from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told lawmakers last week that Iran remains in compliance with the agreement.
“The Hill is the choke point for what Trump wants to do, and we think there can be enough responsible actors to stop him,” said Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council.
Casting a shadow over the fate of the nuclear accord is Trump’s public feud with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a chief architect of legislation that allowed Congress to vote to disapprove of the deal. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders escalated the spat on Tuesday, claiming that Corker “rolled out the red carpet for the Iran deal” despite his opposition to it in 2015.
While Corker has said little about the nuclear accord in recent days, some Democrats believe that he and other moderate Republicans privately would have preferred that Trump certify Tehran’s compliance — and that the same GOP group would support a compromise to avoid torpedoing the pact.
Coons said Tuesday that he would be open to amending the 2015 law that requires Trump to certify Iran’s compliance “if that’s what’s required to get the president to continue to embrace” the deal.
But one Democratic aide wondered if there are “enough Corkers out there” to prevent a quick reinstatement of sanctions.
The nuclear deal, a key piece of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy, gave Tehran relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program. Under the law Congress passed to review the agreement, Trump has to certify to lawmakers Iran’s compliance every three months. International inspectors say Iran is holding up its end of the bargain, but Trump insists the deal is poorly crafted, especially because some of its provisions expire within a decade.
Trump won’t technically be quitting the deal if he declines to certify Iran’s compliance later this month. But that declaration means Congress gets 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions, a move that would likely kill the agreement and, the deal’s supporters warn, put Iran back on the path to building a nuclear bomb.
Pro-deal activists are doing their part to bolster moderate voices that might keep the deal alive. Groups such as MoveOn.org and the Arms Control Association are alerting their grass-roots membership to phone lawmakers on the Hill and ask them not to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
MoveOn and several other organizations are sponsoring a White House rally on Thursday. J Street, the left-leaning Jewish advocacy group, is running digital ads on the issue and has brought in members of the Israeli security establishment to talk to lawmakers about the importance of keeping the agreement intact.
While the British Embassy in Washington takes to Twitter to tout the benefits of remaining in the Iran deal, British Prime Minister Theresa May is making her own case.
In a Tuesday call, May pressed Trump directly and “reaffirmed the U.K.’s strong commitment to the deal alongside our European partners, saying it was vitally important for regional security,” according to a British readout of the leaders’ conversation.
David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, and envoys from a handful of EU member countries have been meeting with lawmakers from both political parties to convey their countries’ strong support for the agreement. The Europeans are especially concerned, O’Sullivan said in an interview, because many of the sanctions that Congress could re-impose would affect European companies that do business with Iran.
One group that’s been relatively quiet is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbied heavily against the nuclear deal in 2015. An AIPAC official said the group is focused on pushing the U.S. for a more comprehensive Iran strategy and still wants weaknesses in the nuclear deal to be addressed but would not say whether AIPAC supports a Trump move to decertify the deal.
Senior congressional Republicans have yet to indicate how they would respond to a Trump decertification. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week said that “I don’t want to get ahead of the president,” and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has called for the U.S. to boost enforcement of the Iran deal without pulling out of it.
Royce is holding an Iran hearing on Wednesday and plans on Thursday to take up a bipartisan bill boosting sanctions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
And while Republicans on Capitol Hill stay mum on Trump’s plans for the deal, its supporters are pinning their hopes on “the adults in the room at the White House,” as J Street’s Dylan Williams put it.
“[M]any Republican colleagues of mine in the Senate have expressed great confidence in the president’s national security and foreign policy team, in the hope that the president will tweet less, listen more and engage in a more measured foreign policy approach,” Coons said.