The Senate last week voted to tie President Trump’s hands on Iran.
Eight Republicans — Sens. Rand Paul (Kentucky), Mike Lee (Utah), Todd Young (Indiana), Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Bill Cassidy (Louisiana), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) — supported the resolution the Senate approved. Though the president can veto the Senate measure if it reaches his desk, it still sends the signal that America’s Senate as well as its House, which last month passed a non-binding but veto-proof version of the resolution, stands apart from Mr. Trump in case of war with Iran.
The Senate resolution argues explicitly and the House version implicitly — and both incorrectly — that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack fails to serve as statutory authorization for military measures against Iran. That AUMF specifies, “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” those who carried out the attack.
The reality is that Iran did aid al Qaeda in carrying out the worst terrorist attack on American soil. The 9/11 Commission explicitly found, “there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” Former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman called Iran “a key al Qaeda partner” that “has never been held responsible for its enabling role” in 9/11. Experts have concluded that as early as the 1990s “Iran and al Qaeda reached an informal agreement to cooperate, with Iran providing critical explosives, intelligence, and security training to bin Laden’s organization.” Not long ago, an Iranian official acknowledged his regime’s role in 9/11. Even Osama bin Laden forbade al Qaeda from targeting the mullahcracy because “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”
Regardless, tying America’s president’s hands is exactly the wrong approach, as his “maximum pressure” campaign is now so obviously working. The strategy began with U.S. withdrawal from the Obama administration’s Iran Deal in May 2018. Even those who reluctantly supported that deal and opposed Mr. Trump’s decision to leave it, however, could arguably unite around tightening certain sanctions on the mullahs’ terrorist-enabling tyranny. For instance, on April 8, 2019, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. The move had potential bipartisan appeal: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliott Engel, New York Democrat, sponsored a bill last Congress expanding IRGC sanctions.
Even inside the Trump administration, leaders disagree on what maximum pressure means. On May 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly threatened against Iran expanding its Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant beyond the existing reactor unit, against transferring enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for natural uranium and against storage for Iran of heavy water in excess of current limits. In July, however, The Washington Post reported Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin succeeded in persuading the president to again renew sanctions waivers related to Iran’s nuclear program, “a key part of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.” Mr. Mnuchin’s rationale: Otherwise, the United States would have to sanction Russian and Chinese — and, technically but not meaningfully, European — firms involved in projects inside Iran established as part of Mr. Obama’s agreement with the mullahs. Those projects include work on Bushehr, the Arak heavy-water reactor, and the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).
Congress should step in, side with Mr. Pompeo, and override Mr. Mnuchin on at least three of these sanctions waivers, tying the mullahs’ hands further, rather than playing politics with President Trump on Iran. Here’s why.
First, the waiver at Bushehr originally allowed Russia’s state-run energy company Rosatom to continue work on two reactor units at the site, as well as to fuel Iran’s sole civil nuclear power reactor and then remove the spent fuel. Granted, the administration has announced potential sanctions against expanding Bushehr beyond the existing reactor unit. Still, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) said on Oct. 15 that concrete was to be poured for the first of those additional units, becoming operational in 2025. Given the level of concern over Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, legislators of both parties should be united in skepticism of the Bushehr work.
Second, modifying the unfinished Arak reactor supposedly reduces plutonium production from two weapons’ worth a year to a fraction of what would be needed for a weapon — but requires America and its partners, specifically the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and formerly the United States (now Britain taking the U.S.’ place), to provide Iran an “assured path forward to modernize the reactor.” Indeed, the AEOI said recently that progress was being made on the Arak reactor conversion project, and that the reactor will be fully operational within two years. In an update in late December, 2019, the head of AEOI said Iran started up Arak’s secondary circuit, which according to the Associated Press technically does not violate the Iran deal. The question is why the United States would countenance China helping Iran modernize or complete a plutonium production facility, regardless of whether Britain stepped in to take America’s place in helping do so. It should not, and Congress should make sure it does not.
Third and finally, the TRR waiver permits the transfer of enriched uranium to Iran, which the Iran deal requires other parties including America to facilitate. That’s right: The entire point of the Fordow waiver is to stop Iranian work to generate highly enriched uranium, yet the TRR waiver requires the United States to help Iran import highly enriched uranium. The rationale is supposedly that this disincentivizes Iran from enriching its own uranium — which is like disincentivizing neo-Nazis’ illegal manufacture of assault weapons by giving neo-Nazis assault weapons. Congress should immediately act to end enriched uranium transfer to Iran.
Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, and Sens. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Lindsay Graham, South Carolina Republican, have said these waivers “dangerously increase the risk of proliferation” and proposed legislation to “reverse the civil nuclear waivers and hold Iran accountable,” S. 2874 and H.R. 5086. Congress should approve them immediately.
Maintaining “maximum pressure” on the mullahs means Congress should tie their hands — not the hands of America’s president.
• Christopher C. Hull (@ChristopherHull) is president of Issue Management Inc.
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