Senators: Trump will likely use Iran nuclear deadline to leverage 'tougher deal'
This week President Donald Trump is expected to openly break with a number of top cabinet officials and refuse to recertify the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, sending the fate of the deal into the hands of Congress.
Over the past week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have all affirmed that Iran is complying with the letter of the agreement, and that it is in America's interest for the president to stay within the framework of the multilateral nuclear deal.
But Trump seems to have his eye on a new deal, and by sending a decertification notice to Congress, some on Capitol Hill believe he's trying to gain the leverage to rewrite the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Based on his recent conversations with the president, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said he believes Donald Trump will announce his decision on Thursday.
"The president was not happy that the decision was finally made to recertify last time," Gorka said in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. "The president, I think, is committed to not recertify on the 12th."
In July, Gorka and Steve Bannon were part of the small faction in the West Wing pressing Trump to make good on his campaign promise and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Both were forced out a month later after retired Marine General John Kelly took over as chief of staff.
At the time, Trump grudgingly took the advice of his other advisers and stuck with the agreement. But Trump made his thoughts clear during a speech to the UN General Assembly where he denounced the nuclear agreement as "an embarrassment" and "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into."
Gorka offered his prediction of the president's next steps, saying, "My money is on definite decertification and possibly withdrawal."
PUTTING THE FATE OF THE DEAL IN THE HANDS OF CONGRESS
Under U.S. law, the Iran Nuclear Review Act, if the president finds Iran to be violating the terms of the JCPOA, or decides it no longer serves the "vital national-security interests of the United States," he sends a notice to Capitol Hill. Congress then has 60 days to debate the issue and vote on whether or not to reimpose or "snap back" the economic sanctions in place before the agreement was in effect.
While some members of Congress are eager to receive a negative notice from the president, others think decertification could be risky and possibly send the wrong message to America's adversaries and allies.
"If the bill moves forward, there's no guarantee Congress won't reimpose sanctions," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said during a Tuesday press call.
Despite Trump's tough talk on the deal, the White House does not actually want Congress to vote to kill the agreement by snapping back sanctions.
Coons was among a group of Democrats who met with Trump's national security staff to discuss the nuclear deal last week. After hearing from national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Coons said he doesn't believe the administration sees abandoning the JCPOA "as a good objective."
Instead, they are trying to use the decertification notice to Congress to "try and negotiate a 'better deal' or a 'tougher deal,'" something Coons worries could be misinterpreted by America's allies and adversaries.
For Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a long-time opponent of the nuclear agreement, getting a better, broader arrangement to curb Iran's nuclear program as well as it's ballistic missile program and malign activities in the Middle East is exactly why he believes the president should decertify.
"The sensible course," Cotton said in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, "is to decline to certify the deal and begin the work of strengthening it and counteracting Iranian aggression, with the threat of sanctions and military action if necessary."
Cotton continued that "the world needs to know we’re serious, we’re willing to walk away, and we’re willing to reimpose sanctions — and a lot more than that. And they'll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before."
Gorka went further taking the hardline that the president should move ahead with "a complete withdraw and then a new deal which looks at Iran writ large, not just based on their nuclear acquisition but on every other destabilizing thing they are doing in the region."
Technically, the president already has that power and could side-step Congress and unilaterally reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, if that were his intent. But it appears more likely that he is setting a situation where he can pressure the other P5+1 parties (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the E.U.) to restart negotiations.
RENEGOTIATING THE DEAL
After spending the better part of a decade negotiating the JCPOA, none of the other P5+1 leaders have said they are willing to sit back down to the negotiating table. Iran has rejected the notion entirely.
However, Gorka says Trump can still strike a deal.
"They've never dealt with a president like Donald J. Trump," he claimed. "The rulebook has been broken. And as such anybody who says conventional wisdoms hold, should think again."
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders further indicated that the president is posturing to get a "broad policy" that could include Iran's nuclear program and its destabilizing activities in the Middle east.
"The president has reached a decision on an overall Iran strategy," she said, "to deal with all of the problems of Iran being a bad actor."
In recent months, the Congress has overwhelmingly expressed its desire to turn up the heat on Tehran, sending Trump a bill including tough new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, continued support for terrorism and human rights abuses. Trump reluctantly signed the bill while calling it "seriously flawed" for encroaching on the executive branch's authority to negotiate.
Top Pentagon officials have also encouraged the president to remain compliant with the JCPOA, while countering Iran's malign activities in other ways.
Gen. Dunford said last week that while upholding its commitments to the nuclear agreement the administration "should focus on addressing the other challenges; the missile threat they pose, the maritime threat they pose, the support of proxies, terrorists, and the cyber threat they pose."
However, those step don't address the president's repeatedly expressed desire to get the P5+1 back together to renegotiate a better deal.
TROUBLE BREWING IN FOREIGN POLICY CIRCLES
In recent days leading up to his expected announcemnet on the JCPOA, Trump's foreign policy team has been in disarray. At the same time, Trump's cabinet officials from Mattis to Tillerson to McMaster have gone on the record in support of upholding the nuclear deal, a position that appears out of step with the president's position.
While some have suggested the disagreements could impact policy and execution, the White House has denied any friction within the core of Trump administration.
Over the weekend, Trump got into a war of words with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the primary author of the Iran Nuclear Review Act and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker has long been the point-person for Trump and the White House to discuss the Iran and other foreign policy matters. While Corker was never a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, he has remained reluctant to tear up the agreement.
As recently as last week the senator told reporters that he and the president remained in regular contact discussing the problems posed by Iran and the pending deadline.
However, after the president unleashed on Corker in a series of Sunday morning tweets, the president's long-time ally shot back, suggesting Trump was out of control, that the White House had become an "adult day care center" and the president was putting the United States on the path to "World War III."
At the same time, some have questioned whether Trump's relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is headed for a breaking point after Trump appeared to undercut his chief diplomat during a recent overseas trip.
After a meeting with Chinese diplomats last week aimed at workign through the North Korean nuclear threat, Tillerson announced that they had successfully opened a channel to engage in talks with Pyongyang.
Shortly after Tillerson's statement, Trump contradicted the secretary via Twitter, writing, "I told Rex Tillerson ... that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man." The president continued, "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"
After the Twitter incident, Tillerson had to fight back reports that he called the president a "moron" and as recently as July threatened to resign.
The White House and State Department affirmed that neither was the case, but the issue reemerged on Tuesday when Trump seemed to jokingly propose the two take IQ tests.
"I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests," the president said in an interview with Forbes Magazine. "And I can tell you who is going to win."
So far the spats with top U.S. foreign policy officials have largely remained personal and not policy-oriented, according to the White House.
Sanders affirmed on Tuesday that despite the IQ comments, the president "has full confidence in the Secretary of State" and does not believe the fallout with Corker will impact relationships with other Republicans.