House panel clashes over next steps in Iran debate

WASHINGTON – Following President Donald Trump announcement on October 13 to decertify the Iranian nuclear agreement, the House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss next steps. Mark Wallace, CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, testified that Congress should pass additional legislation that would reimpose nuclear sanctions on Tehran if the sunset clauses were not eliminated while also intensifying restrictions against the country’s ballistic missile program. Wallace’s recommendation is similar to the proposed bill by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Bob Corker (R-TN).

However, Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior official in the Obama administration, pushed back against Wallace’s proposal. “The problem is that it impossible for the United States to unilaterally alter fundamental terms of the deal or to imagine that our allies and other parties will agree to try to do so,” he explained. Gordon added that extending Iranian nuclear restrictions indefinitely or adding to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) additional terms not originally included “would be considered by all our allies and Iran as violations of the deal, just as we would consider it impermissible for Iran to unilaterally alter its terms.”

Representative Ron Desantis (R-FL) argued that preserving the JCPOA’s status quo was unacceptable. “It is pretty clear after living under this deal that if we continue under this course with Iran, five or ten years down the road, we will be in the same place that we are with North Korea, only this is a regime motivated by militant Islamic ideology and an apocalyptic worldview.”

Lamenting what he viewed as the problematic nature of the sunset clauses, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) expressed concern about the President’s willingness to terminate the deal if Congress did not make significant improvements to the original agreement. “Those very concerns we have about the sunset clause… we are worried about what will happen after ten years. If we walk away from the deal, those sunset provisions go from ten years to tomorrow.”

While opposing some of Trump’s policies ranging from healthcare to immigration, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) applauded the White House for its decertification move. I think it is a sound strategic decision that also allows us an opportunity to address some of the concerns we have with our allies, like the lack of EU designations against Iran for non-nuclear related illicit activity,” she said. The Florida lawmaker blasted the JCPOA for not addressing Tehran’s ballistic missile program and Iranian support for terrorist organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), a supporter of the JCPOA, said such expectations of the 2015 nuclear agreement were unrealistic. “When Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon negotiated the Salt I (arms control)  agreement, did they insist that all negative behavior on the part of the Soviet Union be incorporated into that agreement?” Connolly asked rhetorically. “They did not.” Gordon replied.

In addition to addressing the JCPOA, Wallace, who served as an Ambassador in the George W. Bush administration, recommended that the Trump administration designate the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. He added that Congress should also direct the President to appoint a special envoy for Iran who would take the lead on all diplomatic engagement on nuclear and non-nuclear issues, increasing the authority of the administration official dealing with the Tehran file.

One of Trump’s harshest critics, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) used the forum to blast the mixed messages from senior cabinet officials and the President regarding the effectiveness of the JCPOA. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted that it was in America’s interest to remain in the deal, despite the President calling the agreement a “disaster.” Lieu asserted, “When Secretary of State Tillerson now talks to Members of Congress or world leaders, we don’t know who he is actually speaking for? Is he speaking for himself? Is he speaking for the President?”

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