Congress is considering steps to toughen the existing law governing US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, in an effort to target more of Iran’s belligerent activities.
US sanctions against Iran automatically would kick in if Tehran violates new constraints, according to a draft Republican bill sought by President Donald Trump as he tries to unravel the landmark 2015 international accord to prevent Iran from assembling an arsenal of atomic weapons.
The draft bill, crafted by GOP Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tom Cotton of Arkansas with input from the Trump administration, wouldn’t necessarily violate the Iran nuclear deal if passed into law. But the measure, obtained by the Associated Press, could still end up derailing the agreement by holding Iran to a series of requirements not previously agreed to when the deal was forged by the US and other world powers two years ago.
Among the expanded criteria Iran would be punished for breaching, according to the legislation: flight testing, manufacture or deployment of warhead-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, including any attempts to convert space-launched vehicles into ICBMs; and “any work to clandestinely acquire nuclear material, or equipment intended to produce nuclear material, from outside of Iran.”
The legislation aims to meet Trump’s demands that Congress act quickly to toughen the existing law that governs US participation in the Iran nuclear deal. Trump also is insisting that other countries party to the accord repair a series of deficiencies and he threatened last week to pull the US out of the agreement if the changes aren’t made.
US Pullout Renders the Deal Meaningless
Trump alone cannot actually terminate the accord, which lifted sanctions that had choked Iran’s economy in exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program. But withdrawing the US would render the deal virtually meaningless.
Trump, along with many Republicans, has long been hostile to the nuclear agreement that was agreed to during former President Barack Obama’s second term and endorsed by the UN Security Council. France, Germany and the United Kingdom are parties to the accord. But Trump late last week refused to certify that Iran is complying with the accord and blamed Tehran for malign and destructive behavior that’s destabilized the Middle East.
Critics of unilaterally legislating new terms outside of the so-called “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” have argued such an approach may isolate the US and force key European allies to side with Iran in defense of the deal.
While the bill has yet to circulate among many lawmakers, Senate Democrats said they are opposed to any measures that may rewrite or nullify the criteria for Iran to receive US sanctions relief under the terms of the 2015 pact. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate and Democrats may be able to use the filibuster to block the measure from being brought to a vote.
“I think there always is the potential to work on policy that cracks down on Iran’s nefarious behavior in the region,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “But my impression is there’s not a lot of Democratic support, if any, to rewrite terms of the deal.”
The draft proposal reflects the deep misgivings among many Republicans over what they consider to be fatal flaws in the nuclear deal. Chief among them are key restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that will begin to expire in year 10 of the accord, heightening concerns Iran may be able to build an atomic bomb even before the end of the pact.
The measure, which has not yet been introduced in Congress, spells out in technical detail how the United States would freeze at one year Iran’s “breakout timeline” for being able to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The draft bill would effectively make permanent provisions in the nuclear deal with Iran that relate to uranium enrichment and stockpiles and the operation of specific centrifuges.
Iran also would be in violation of the seven-nation nuclear accord if it failed to give the International Atomic Energy Agency “sufficient access to any site, including military sites,” requested by the UN watchdog, according to the legislation.
Despite Trump’s objections, the IAEA has said Iran’s is honoring its commitments and US military leaders echo that assessment, saying the deal is in the nation’s national security interest.
US Stands Alone Against Iran
European Union foreign ministers backed the Iran nuclear agreement in a statement earlier this week, saying the accord is working and is a key part of non-proliferation efforts.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Trump’s refusal to certify Iran’s compliance is raising unnecessary risks at a time when tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal haven’t subsided.
“By stepping back from a diplomatic deal that the US made with the global community that is clearly working, the president is publicly undercutting diplomatic negotiations and he’s setting us on a road where military options become increasingly more likely,” Kaine said.
To remedy the so-called “sunset” provisions and ensure Iran never gets within a year of obtaining atomic weapons, the legislation effectively disposes of them altogether. For example, Tehran would be indefinitely barred from operating more than 5,060 uranium-producing centrifuges — the number it is now restricted to using under the agreement.
Iran also would be prohibited until further notice from producing uranium enriched above 3.67 percent and couldn’t stockpile any more than 300 kilograms of the materials. Uranium enriched at that level is sufficient for civilian power plant use but too low for nuclear weapons.
The bill requires a semi-annual report on Iran’s compliance. The reporting would be expanded significantly to include additional examples of objectionable Iranian behavior that could be used to further build the case Tehran is not complying with the deal. Congress would be told, for example, if Iran’s “violations of internationally recognized human rights” have increased or decreased, and if there had been any military use by Iran of commercial aircraft, parts or services licensed by the United States.