As the Trump administration’s term in office nears its end, U.S. hawks are gearing up for a final showdown in hopes of dealing a death blow to the remains of the JCPOA — the nuclear deal between the U.S., other major world powers, and Iran. News of agreement between Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — both opponents of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — on a legislative vehicle that would craft the outlines of a “new” nuclear accord indicates that the showdown may well take in the halls of Congress.
Sens. Graham and Menendez have reportedly agreed on legislation that would detail the parameters of a nuclear accord that could be offered to Iran, as well as the U.S.’s Persian Gulf allies, in exchange for limited sanctions relief to Iran. Any broader sanctions relief for Iran would require Iran to forswear parts of its ballistic missile program, as well as its funding for regional allies like Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiite militias.
The stirring of potential legislation akin to this has surfaced occasionally over the past few months. No one should be surprised: U.S. hawks, having pushed Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal, reimpose sanctions on Iran, and exact an economic war against the Islamic Republic, have thus far failed to kill the nuclear deal outright, as Europe, Russia, and China continue to preserve the remnants of the agreement. Seeing diminished sanctions leverage moving forward and aware of impending presidential elections in the United States, U.S. hawks now intend to move the fight to a new arena in hopes of collapsing the deal entirely and preventing any potential Democratic successor to Trump from rehabilitating the nuclear accord.
These fears are understandable: Democrats, most especially the contenders for the presidential nomination, have shown effective unity in supporting President Obama’s nuclear accord and promising a return to the JCPOA should Iran resume implementing its own nuclear-related obligations thereunder. Despite attempting to impose a “sanctions wall” with Iran, the purpose of which was expressly to hinder a future Democratic administration from seeking any diplomatic resolution with Iran, U.S. hawks understand full well that a motivated Democratic administration could easily reverse Trump’s sanctions and return the U.S. to full compliance with the JCPOA, all the while creating space for a broader rapprochement with Iran that could finally and conclusively take war off the table.
For these reasons, U.S. hawks are entertaining two avenues to deal their death blow to the JCPOA: First, reports indicate that the Trump administration is undertaking extensive diplomatic efforts to push European powers to snapback United Nations sanctions on Iran pursuant to the nuclear accord’s dispute resolution mechanism. This includes the same kind of heavy-handed economic pressure as Trump has imposed on Iran, as Trump has threatened tariffs on European countries that fail to toe the line. Failing this, though, the administration is also pursuing whether the U.S. can itself snapback U.N. sanctions, relying on a stylized reading of U.N. Security Resolution 2231 to assert that the U.S. remains a JCPOA participant and can make use of the dispute resolution mechanism thereunder.
Second, U.S. hawks, as indicated, will pursue legislative vehicles that may, variously, impose practical and political hindrances to any successor administration seeking to return the U.S. to compliance with the nuclear deal. It would be little surprise, for instance, if Sens. Graham and Menendez proposed a bill that included provisions withdrawing from the President the power to lift certain sanctions absent a nuclear deal tailored to their proposal. On the other hand, any proposed legislation will attempt to form cracks in the Democratic unity that has prevailed thus far, hoping to forge what may be (falsely) characterized as a bipartisan basis for rejecting Obama’s nuclear deal in favor of an unachievable “bigger,” “better,” and “newer” deal.
No one should be fooled by this, and Democratic leaders — starting with the contenders for the presidential nomination — should be clear in their blanket rejection. The politics are not hard: President Obama forged a historic nuclear agreement that cemented important and long-term caps on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. That agreement, which retains the support of the international community, has been tossed aside by the Trump administration in its fevered desire for regime change and a new war in the Middle East. Such a war has only been narrowly avoided at this time, as evidenced by the tit-for-tat military responses between the U.S. and Iran this winter. In order to avoid a catastrophic war, Obama’s nuclear deal serves as the starting point for a more comprehensive diplomatic posture with Iran that can conclusively resolve the historic conflicts simmering between the two countries.
That is the winning argument.