Republicans in Congress will face a wrenching choice if President Trump follows through on decertifying the Iran nuclear deal.
Decertification would unlock a fast-track procedure for Congress to reimpose sanctions, leaving Republicans with two unappealing options.
Snap back the sanctions, and Iran likely walks, killing an agreement that top administration officials say is in the national interest. Do nothing, and the deal likely stands, preserving a pact that Republicans have lambasted for years.
For now, it appears that Republicans have little appetite for reviving the sanctions. Yet the pressure from hard-liners to act will be intense.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, signaled the GOP’s likely approach on Wednesday. He said the U.S. should demand Iranian compliance with the agreement but also impose new sanctions for activities outside the scope of the deal.
“As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it,” Royce said at the top of a hearing. “Let’s work with allies to make certain that international inspectors have better access to possible nuclear sites, and we should address the fundamental sunset shortcoming, as our allies have recognized. This committee will do its part tomorrow by marking-up the Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act.”
Asked after the hearing whether he thinks Congress will reimpose the nuclear sanctions, Royce pointed back to his opening statement.
Trump faces a Sunday deadline to tell Congress whether Iran remains in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and whether the agreement remains in the national interest of the United States.
Trump has certified the deal twice before. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have said Iran is complying. Mattis testified to Congress that staying in the deal is in the United States’ national interest.
But Trump is widely expected to announce this week that he disagrees and is decertifying the deal.
Congress created the certification deadline in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). That law established a 60-day window for Congress to quickly snap back sanctions lifted under the deal. In the Senate, that fast-track process means only a simple majority is required to reimpose sanctions, so Democrats would not be able to block it.
As Trump’s announcement looms, congressional leaders have mostly demurred on the sanctions question.
Asked whether the Senate will take up sanctions legislation, spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday they had no announcements in advance of the president’s remarks.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) likewise told reporters last week he didn’t “want to get ahead of the president.”
One complicating factor is Trump’s feud with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). As chairman, Corker would play a pivotal role in whatever the Senate decides to do.
The White House has made it clear that Trump’s problems with Corker stem at least in part from his stance on Iran. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday accused Corker of being complicit in the deal, saying he “rolled out the red carpet” for it.
Corker’s office rejected the accusation, pointing to Corker’s vote against the deal and his insistence on the passage of INARA. Without that law, Congress would not have a say in the deal at all.
Last week, Corker was tight-lipped about what he thinks will happen on Iran, saying he is “way, way, way too close” to the administration’s decision to comment. But he has talked generally about pushing back on Iran without scuttling the accord.