WASHINGTON (CN) – Voicing concern about the Trump administration’s recent move to decertify the Iran nuclear agreement, experts told Congress on Wednesday that there are steps America can take to counter Iran’s threats without backing away from the controversial deal.
The three experts who testified this morning before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa varied in their support for the nuclear agreement, but all agreed that the United States can do more to combat Iranian threats unrelated to the basic points of the deal, such as its sponsoring of foreign terrorism.
The Iran nuclear agreement, which the Obama administration struck with five other countries and Iran in 2015, gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limitations on the country’s burgeoning nuclear program.
The Trump administration decertified the deal earlier this month, opening the door for Congress to negotiate a new agreement that would address some of the original pact’s perceived flaws. Chief among these concerns are the deal’s silence on ballistic-missile testing and so-called “sunset provisions” that slowly lift certain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Decertifying the deal does not immediately break it; Congress had passed a law, however, requiring the president to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal every 90 days. It would take a reimposition of sanctions by Congress to put the United States in violation of the nuclear deal.
Mark Wallace, CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, endorsed the administration’s call for legislation that would automatically reinstitute sanctions if Iran does not agree to address its concerns. He said the administration should also develop a more comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East that is disconnected from the agreement.
“We have to push Iran back and we have to use our economic pressure to do that,” said Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform. “And it’s worked in the past. It can work again, but it requires a bipartisan consensus.”
Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, offered contrasting testimony, saying the deal’s continuation is the best way to handle Iran.
A former Middle East expert in the Obama White House, Gordon noted that other signatories to the deal have little incentive to renegotiate an agreement they believe is working.
“We’re alone on this right now,” Gordon said. “I don’t speak either for the Europeans or the Trump administration, but the Europeans have spoken for themselves. And that is the risk of this strategy.”
Wallace and Gordon’s disagreement on the prospects of the Trump administration’s plan mirrored the split that emerged among the lawmakers who attended the hearing and who now will have a direct say in the agreement’s fate.
Democrats, even those who have been skeptical of the agreement, expressed doubt about using the threat of leaving the deal to achieve goals that are better reached in other ways.
“Those very concerns that we have about the sunset provisions — that are legitimate, that I share,” said Rep. Theodore Deutch, D-Fla., at the hearing. “We’re worried about what will happen after 10 years. If we walk away from the deal, those sunset provisions go from 10 years to tomorrow.”
But Republicans saw the Trump administration’s move as a way to extract more concessions from Iran, including granting international inspectors greater access to Iranian military sites. Olli Heinonen, the senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, stressed the need for greater access throughout his testimony at the hearing Wednesday.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the Trump administration’s move gives the United States the opportunity to take a stronger stance against Iran, which she accused of being in violation of the agreement.
“It gives us an opportunity to correct the record and get some of the promises and assurances that were given to Congress that haven’t actually come to fruition,” Ros-Lehtinen said at the hearing Wednesday.