Hawks Use Pompeo in Horse-Trading Over Iran Policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran hawks in Congress have leveraged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s interest in a Senate run to win a key concession from the Trump administration that could help kill the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Late last week, the State Department agreed to release part of an internal legal opinion that says the United States has the right to demand that all U.N. sanctions on Iran be reinstated, despite President Donald Trump’s pulling out of the nuclear deal. In exchange, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his hold on the nomination for Stephen Biegun to serve as the State Department’s No. 2 official, according to an administration official and a congressional aide.

Cruz’s hold on Biegun not only put his nomination in jeopardy, it risked upending a relatively seamless transition at the State Department if Pompeo steps down to run for Senate in Kansas. Without Biegun in place, the top job at State would likely have gone on an interim basis to David Hale, a career official who testified in the impeachment inquiry of Trump.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks during an Oct. 5, 2019 news conference. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The behind-the-scenes drama raises new questions about Pompeo’s future as the nation’s top diplomat. A former congressman and Trump’s first CIA director, Pompeo has been weighing a Senate campaign in his home state for months, though officials say no decision has been made.

The matter highlights the extent to which some Republicans in Washington are still pushing to dismantle remaining elements of the Iran nuclear accord more than a year after the United States withdrew. The State Department legal opinion will be used by Cruz and others in coming weeks to argue that Washington can still force the reimposition of U.N. sanctions set to expire next year.

Cruz placed the hold on the nomination for Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, pending release of the Iran opinion. Cruz is an ally of the White House and one of the most hawkish lawmakers in Congress on Iran.

The hold would have scrambled the pecking order at the State Department should Pompeo depart for a Senate campaign.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was confirmed on Thursday to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. The third-ranking official is Hale, the most senior department official to testify in the impeachment investigation. He shed light on the decision to oust Marie Yovanovitch from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, and the department’s decision to not defend her.

After considering the possibility that Hale would become acting secretary of state with Sullivan off to Moscow and Biegun’s nomination on hold, the department relented and released the Iran memo, according to the administration official and congressional aide.

Hours later, Cruz lifted his hold on Biegun.

The administration official and congressional aide were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Iran opinion will be used by Cruz and other Iran deal opponents to argue that the United States should invoke a “snapback” mechanism for U.N. sanctions that is allowed under the Security Council resolution regarding the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Snapback would mean reimposition of all U.N. sanctions against Iran, including an arms embargo and travel bans on specific Iranian officials that are due to expire in October 2020.

Under Security Council Resolution 2231, any “participant state” in the agreement may invoke the snapback if Iran is found to be in “significant non-performance” with the agreement. Although Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal last year, the resolution names the participants as those countries that originally negotiated it: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and the European Union, along with Iran.

Deal supporters have said that Trump’s withdrawal means the United States is no longer a participant and is thus ineligible to invoke the snapback mechanism. Critics of the accord maintain the language of the Security Council resolution would allow it.

The State Department’s legal opinion leans in favor of that latter argument, saying the United States has a legal avenue to demand the restoration of the U.N. sanctions.

“As the United States is an original JCPOA participant identified in (the U.N. resolution), there is a legally available argument we can assert that the United States can initiate the snapback process under UNSCR 2231 by submitting a notification to the Security Council of an issue that the United States believes constitutes significant non-performance,” the State Department opinion says.

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