Trump kicks the Iran ball to Congress, puts pressure on Republican members
US President Donald Trump has essentially turned US-Iran policy over to the US Congress. While making clear his personal displeasure with the nuclear deal signed between Iran, the United States and other world powers in 2015, Trump is leaving it to Congress to decide whether to impose new sanctions on Tehran that would effectively terminate the accord.
Many members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — have serious concerns about Iran’s activities and policies in the Middle East, including its support for the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi fighters in Yemen. Iran’s expanding missile programme also is getting critical attention in Congress.
However, there is little appetite in Congress for imposing the kinds of sanctions on Tehran that would provoke the Iranians to walk away from the nuclear deal, a deal that even senior administration officials, such as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, have said the Iranians are compliant with.
Some in Congress say Trump is making matters more complicated and uncertain without offering solutions of his own. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Hill newspaper: “He’s signalling his intense dislike for the deal but taking no concrete steps to undermine it or to leave it… I’m gravely concerned that this step will be misunderstood by our adversaries and our allies, that it will distance us from our European partners in the Iran agreement and that it will lead to some mischief in Congress.”
Trump’s decision puts pressure on Republicans in Congress, who control majorities in both the House and the Senate. If they vote to reimpose sanctions, there is a good chance that Washington’s European allies will refuse to join in, setting up a possible confrontation between the United States and its allies.
There is a remote chance that Iran would walk away from the deal if sanctions are reimposed but it is more likely that Tehran will continue to abide by it and then sit back to enjoy the tensions created in the Western alliance.
If Republicans do not impose new sanctions, however, they risk looking foolish, as most of them have spent the past two years railing against the deal and criticising former President Barack Obama for signing it.
Congressman Ed Royce, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that the United States should continue to demand Iranian compliance with the agreement but impose new sanctions for activities outside the scope of the deal — sanctions that, in theory, would not provoke Tehran to walk away from the deal.
At a recent Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Royce said: “As flawed as the deal is, I believe we must now enforce the hell out of it.”
A pivotal decision-maker will be Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Corker and Trump are involved in a nasty Twitter feud — Corker called the White House “an adult day care centre” — and it is hard to imagine the two coordinating on Iran policy. In one of his tweets, Trump accused Corker of being complicit with Obama in supporting the nuclear deal. In fact, Corker strongly opposed the deal in Senate debate in 2015.
In a recent Senate hearing, Corker expressed concerns about walking away from a deal that the United States negotiated with its allies, as well as with Russia and China. “You can only tear these things up one time,” Corker said. “It might feel good for a second but one of the things that’s important for us is to keep our allies with us, especially our Western allies, and so there are ways of dealing with this that can deal with the deficiencies that we all know are there and the agreement potentially stay in place.”