Congress will miss its deadline to reimpose sanctions on Iran deal. What happens next?

Activists in front of the White House protest President Donald Trump's decision to decertify the Iran deal, Oct. 12, 2017. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Two months ago, President Donald Trump triggered a deadline about to come due on the Iran nuclear deal by decertifying Iran’s compliance. That meant Congress had 60 days to reimpose sanctions.

Sixty days later — on Dec. 12 — Congress is not about to reimpose sanctions. So what happens now?

Let’s review:

Like it or not, the Iran deal is not going anywhere at least for another month.

The 2015 agreement forged between Iran and six nations led by the United States trades sanctions relief for Iran’s agreement to roll back its nuclear program.

Trump hates it, saying the pact gave too much away for too little. Iran, he has said, is violating its “spirit” through continued missile testing, human rights violations, and backing for terrorists and military adventurism. The president is free to walk away from the deal anytime by reimposing sanctions.

His top advisers have talked him out of that option, noting that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, say Iran is complying with the deal’s strictures on enriching fissile material. A U.S. walkout while Iran is in compliance would cost the Americans leverage and influence. Instead, on Oct. 13, Trump decertified the deal under the terms of a 2015 law passed by Congress: the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA.

INARA gives Congress 60 days to snap back — that is, reimpose — the kinds of sanctions the deal had lifted. It includes an exemption from Senate rules requiring a 60-vote majority to advance legislation; only a simple majority of 51 is needed to pass. Had the body’s Republican leaders chosen this option, they may have had a shot at passage, with the GOP controlling 52 votes. Amassing the 60 votes needed under regular order is seen as a nonstarter.

So Congress missed the deadline?

That’s not exactly clear. The 2015 law was designed to keep the pressure on a Democratic president, so great thought wasn’t given to the passage dealing with what happens should a president decertify. Republicans are adamant that each time Trump decertifies Iranian compliance — his next deadline to do so is mid-January — the 60-day window to reimpose sanctions with a simple majority in the Senate kicks in again. But some Democrats say the 60-day window for reimposing sanctions with a 51-senator majority is a one-off and have asked the congressional parliamentarian for an opinion on the issue. (The offices of the parliamentarians for both chambers did not return JTA’s request for an opinion.)

IAEA inspectors say Iran is in compliance. So what is Trump referring to?

The INARA requirements for decertification are broader than merely showing Iran is not complying with the deal’s limits on uranium and centrifuges used for enrichment. They allow the president to decertify if he feels that suspending sanctions is no longer “appropriate and proportionate to the specific and verifiable measures taken by Iran with respect to terminating its illicit nuclear program.” The Trump administration interprets that passage as justifying decertification if a president believes the deal is flawed, which Trump does.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an Oct. 13 letter to congressional leaders cited that language. He specified the deal’s “sunset clauses” allowing Iran to remove some strictures on enrichment within the next decade or so as a justification for decertification.

Congress doesn’t reimpose sanctions. Is this a bust for Trump?

No. In his Oct. 13 policy speech, Trump did not call for the sanctions snapback.

“The 60-day deadline was just a window in which Congress could expedite legislation if it chose to,” a senior White House official told JTA. “Congress was not obligated to act and in fact had indicated in October that there were no plans to reinstitute those sanctions.”

Instead, Trump called for a review of the terms of the deal, either through amending INARA or through new legislation. Ideally the legislation would include restrictions on Iran’s missile development and its military adventurism, as well as the removal or at least the extension of the sunset clauses. Trump also called on European allies to work with the United States to amend the deal.

Is that happening?

No. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans remain so wide that neither side has circulated text of a draft bill, the usual opening gambit in advancing legislation. Deal supporters are taking heart in the unbridgeable gap.

“The fact that the 60-day window has closed without even introduction of legislation to reimpose sanctions shows there’s little to no appetite in Congress to blow up the deal legislatively,” said Dylan Williams, the vice president of government affairs for J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group.

The European parties to the deal — Germany, Britain and France — say it would be bad faith to reopen the deal. They also note that the other parties, Iran, Russia and China, have no interest in renegotiating the terms of the deal, so it’s a dead end. Democrats say they have no interest in renegotiating a done deal, especially because the Europeans are not on board. Instead, Democrats and Europeans have called for strengthening non-nuclear sanctions on Iran.

“We won’t be party to anything that violates the JCPOA,” a congressional Democratic staffer told JTA, using the acronym for the deal’s formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “We’re not going to part of anything that the Europeans are not on board with.”

So what happens now?

“The work on addressing the issues the president identified in the INARA law goes on,” the senior White House official told JTA, without elaborating.

Trump said in October that if Congress did not come up with a fix, he would pull out of the deal. He can do so anytime, but all eyes are on the mid-January deadline for him to waive sanctions on Iran under the terms of the agreement. That, coincidentally, is about the same time he must certify or decertify Iranian compliance under INARA.

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — and a top Republican Senate staffer from 2005 to 2014 who was an architect of Iran sanctions — said it needs not be either-or for Trump. Goldberg said the president could waive some sanctions and reimpose others. He could impose new sanctions related to Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including missile development. He could reassert, again, that Iran is not in compliance with the deal under the terms defined by INARA. In that case congressional leaders, after consulting with the parliamentarian, may determine that Trump’s decertification again triggers a 60-day period allowing Congress to reimpose sanctions, with only a simple majority needed in the Senate.

Any one of those scenarios, Goldberg said, could roil Iranian markets, just as Trump’s October decertification did, and maintain U.S. leverage on Iran.

“The rial has plummeted since the decertification,” he said, referring to the Iranian currency.

If Democrats and Republicans are unable to agree on new legislation, it’s better that they hold off for now, Goldberg said; toothless legislation would amount to a green light to business overseas to deal with Iran.

“Better that the Congress doesn’t undercut the president and undermine pressure that’s building inside Iran and inside Europe,” he said.