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Divided Republicans struggle to formulate post-Iran deal policy

While some GOP leaders cautioned President Donald Trump against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, others praised the move and pushed for new sanctions — and even a war authorization.
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) arrives at Trump Tower to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in New York, U.S., November 29, 2016.   REUTERS/Mike Segar - RC17792FFC10

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal after minimal consultation with lawmakers has made it difficult for his own party to coalesce around a legislative strategy moving forward.

Some high-profile House Republicans made clear today that they think the White House has left the United States isolated by unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement. Others took a more hawkish line advocating for new sanctions — and even a new war authorization to counter Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East.

“We’re seeing a new enemy that’s more [Shiite]-based than Sunni,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who called on Congress to pass an authorization for the use of military force against Iran and its Shiite proxy forces throughout the region.

“It’s not al-Qaeda or [the Islamic State] now,” McCaul told Al-Monitor. “It’s a … threat from Iran and they’ve extended into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen. So that’s just one of the options or tools that Congress may have.”

Less hawkish members said the president’s decision has left the United States with little option but to be ready for a potential confrontation.

“My preference would have been to give our European allies a few more months to strengthen the deal,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement. “But now that the president has decided that the United States will withdraw, we must have two critical priorities. One is to further enhance our own military capabilities. The other is to strengthen our alliances. A strong, international effort is required to curtail Iran’s aggressive behavior in a number of areas.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., disagreed with Trump’s approach, arguing that the United States should remain in the deal, work to fix its perceived flaws and “enforce the hell out of” it.

Withdrawing “won’t help galvanize our allies into addressing Iran’s dangerous activities that threaten us all,” Royce argued at a committee hearing on Iran today. “I fear a withdrawal would actually set back these efforts. And Congress has heard nothing about an alternative.”

Democrats — even those who voted against the deal in 2015 — have long railed against Trump’s threats to withdraw from the deal and argued that the administration has no comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran. But the criticism from fellow Republicans could presage sharp, intraparty policy divides on how to approach Iran after the deal amid concerns that the Republicans will own whatever happens next.

While McCaul did express concern that withdrawing from the deal will “shift attention away from Iran and put it on the United States,” it did not stop him from floating additional sanctions on Tehran. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, echoed McCaul’s call for additional sanctions in a statement after Trump announced his decision.

“The administration’s action necessitates that the president and Congress re-establish the previous sanctions regime and develop new, harsh sanctions to hold Iran accountable not only for its attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but for its grotesque human rights abuses, openly hostile aggression in the Middle East, extensive ballistic missile testing and support for terrorism,” he said. 

Anti-deal advocates in Washington are making a similar case. Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, defended Trump’s approach as “a combination of political warfare, economic pressure and military deterrence.”

Even as the United States reimposes sanctions that had been lifted under the nuclear agreement, administration officials and congressional leaders indicated that they will continue to negotiate with Europe on a follow-up deal that addresses Trump’s stated concerns. These include adding permanent restrictions on certain nuclear enrichment activities, Iran’s ballistic missile program and access to military sites for international inspectors.

“We will continue to work with our allies to build an agreement that is truly in the best interest of our long-term national security,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement after Trump’s announcement. The Treasury Department indicated in a fact sheet today that the earliest sanctions will only go into effect after a “wind down period,” during which negotiations are expected to continue.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Georgia; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., all endorsed using the interim period to continue working on a new deal. But others appear to have made their peace with a permanent US withdrawal.

“I’m glad that President Trump decided today to withdraw from the flawed Iran nuclear deal and impose crippling economic and financial sanctions against the Iranian regime,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement.

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