Senator lays out case for Trump on Iran nuke deal

President would get distance from pact without leaving it

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A key U.S. senator long opposed to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran offered a path for President Donald Trump to distance himself from the accord without immediately quitting it, imposing new sanctions or carrying out military action.

Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Trump should “decertify” Iran’s compliance with the agreement in a report required by Congress every 90 days and next due on Oct. 15. That, Cotton said, would let Congress approve a list of demands that the president could then press European allies who are part of the accord — and reluctant to leave it — to accept.

“The Congress and president should lay out how the deal should change and the consequences for Iran,” Cotton said Tuesday evening in Washington at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “The world needs to know we are serious, we are willing to walk away, we are willing to impose sanctions and a lot more than that. And they’ll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.”

The 2-year-old accord lifted a range of international sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Cotton and other critics say it fails to take into account the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program and by its efforts in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen to support leaders or groups opposed to the U.S. and its allies.

Trump campaigned against the agreement reached by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and has signaled increasing frustration after twice this year certifying Iran’s compliance with the accord in earlier reports to Congress.

Cotton’s comments came as Trump and his national security team seem divided on the value of the accord that six world powers reached with Iran. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a Senate committee Tuesday that it’s in the U.S.’s strategic interest to remain in the nuclear deal, even though Trump called the agreement an “embarrassment” to the U.S. during a speech at the U.N. last month.

Asked at a House hearing later Tuesday if Iran is complying with the accord, Mattis said, “I believe that they fundamentally are.” But he added that informing Congress the Islamic Republic isn’t living up to its broader responsibilities would be “distinct” from quitting the international accord.

Cotton, too, stressed that decertifying Iran isn’t necessarily the same as leaving the deal. He said Congress would act after Trump’s decision to lay out key requirements of a revised Iran agreement, including:

• Eliminating “sunset provisions” that phase out restrictions on the enrichment of uranium in the middle of the next decade.

• Providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with greater authority to inspect Iranian sites where nuclear work may be going on undetected.

• Restricting Iran’s ballistic missile program.