Congress / Mideast

Iran protests reveal Republican fracture over nuclear deal

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Article Summary
Iran hawks are pushing the Trump administration to terminate the agreement, but Republican leaders worry US pressure could backfire.

The unrest in Iran has exacerbated a split among Republicans who were widely critical of the Barack Obama administration’s tepid response to similar protests in 2009.

Some congressional hawks are urging President Donald Trump to show solidarity with anti-government demonstrators by reinstating sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement and pull out of the deal. But others are advocating a more cautious approach.

“President Obama did far too little to encourage the 2009 protests and indeed his administration tragically was far more focused on cutting a deal with [Tehran] on sending billions of dollars to that despotic regime than on standing up for the people of Iran who desire to be free,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Al-Monitor. “The president should not sign the next waiver but instead should reimpose sanctions and we should be doing everything humanly possible to put pressure on the regime and to topple the ayatollah [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei], who poses the single greatest long-term national security threat to the United States.”

Other members echoed the sentiment.

“America’s timid response to the '09 Iranian Green Movement was a mistake,” tweeted Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. “Iran is censoring and killing protestors once again. The awful Obama nuclear deal has only emboldened this oppressive regime.”

But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Monitor that a blunt US response could do more harm than good.

“We still obviously want the protests to be about the Iranian government,” Corker said. “I think us getting in the middle of that relative to this deal is probably not a good thing.”

The debate comes as Trump faces key deadlines next week that could seal the fate of the nuclear deal.

On Jan. 11, Trump must once again decide whether to certify that the deal meets congressional requirements. More crucially, the president then faces a series of deadlines regarding the renewal of waivers on Iran sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal, starting Jan. 12.

Trump’s refusal to certify the deal in October gave congressional Republicans a now-expired 60-day window to reinstate nuclear sanctions with a simple 50-vote majority instead of the usual 60. The White House, however, did not ask the Republican leadership to do so and instead opted to work with Corker to draft new legislation that would automatically renew sanctions on Iran should Tehran come within one year of obtaining a nuclear weapon.

When Trump first refused to certify the deal, he said, “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders reaffirmed Tuesday that “the president hasn’t made a final decision” on renewing the sanctions waivers for Iran.

While Corker initially said he would release his bill in October, he has yet to do so. But he told Al-Monitor he was hopeful Trump would not renew sanctions next week because “there’s a little momentum [on the draft legislation] right now.”

He said, “It doesn’t feel to me like we’re in a place where the president might do that but who knows.” 

Corker said he has made progress in negotiations with Senate Democrats and the White House, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster. According to Corker, his office is currently circulating draft legislation between the White House and the office of Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We had good conversations with our European allies and I think Senator Cardin and we both may be meeting with the [White House] national security folks tomorrow again,” Corker told Al-Monitor on Wednesday. “It’s moving along and the language is being developed and the White House has done a good job communicating with our European allies.”

“What the president said at the time was he either wanted to solve or wanted to see progress and we have that language that’s floating back and forth between the Security Council and our office and Cardin’s office,” added Corker. “He has to know that progress is being made.”

But between Democrats who refuse to sign on to any legislation that could be construed as violating the deal and Republican hard-liners who want Trump to outright scrap it, the bill could face significant hurdles clearing the Senate. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for example, has made clear his preference for taking a hard line.

“As the next deadline for waiving sanctions approaches … I urge the president to consider whether it is truly in America’s national security interest to keep our most powerful non-military tools off the table and to continue suspending the Iran sanctions measures that have a proven track-record of changing the Iranian regime’s behavior,” Rubio wrote in a December statement before the protests began.

Rubio signed on to a nonbinding Senate resolution introduced today by Corker and Cardin that calls on Iran to respect the rights of the demonstrators while making no mention of the nuclear agreement. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., has introduced a similar resolution in the House.

The Trump administration, for its part, has vowed not to repeat what it views as Obama’s mistake in handling the 2009 protests. The White House has promised to support the demonstrators, but offered few details while declining to respond to Al-Monitor’s request for specifics.

“You will see great support from the United Sates at the appropriate time,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, addressing the protesters. Vice President Mike Pence followed up with a Washington Post op-ed today noting that Trump “has also committed to provide assistance in the days ahead.”

While Pence provided no details on what that assistance would entail, he highlighted Trump’s previous refusal to certify the nuclear deal to Congress and the administration’s additional sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Furthermore, the Treasury Department also placed sanctions on five Iranian entities involved in Tehran’s ballistic missile program today.

However, Democratic critics of the administration argue that Trump has ceded much of his credibility with the Iranian public because of his controversial travel ban, which prevents most Iranians from coming to the United States. While Cardin encouraged the administration to “explore options for sending signals of support to the Iranian people,” in a statement on Tuesday, he noted that “a good start would be immediately removing Iran from the travel ban.”

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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