Congress takes the lead on foreign policy

With the Trump administration awash in suspicion over its relations with Russia, the House and the Senate voted overwhelmingly last week in favor of additional sanctions on Moscow and requiring the president to obtain congressional approval before easing them.

The same bill ramps up sanctions on Iran for its missile testing, human rights abuses and backing of terrorism. The measure, which also includes North Korea sanctions, has been sent to President Trump, who has been uncharacteristically quiet about whether he will sign the bill — although the White House’s overhauled communications shop signaled that Trump would probably sign it. Russia responded late last week by confiscating two American diplomatic properties and ordering a reduction in U.S. diplomatic personnel in the country.

We are pleased to see Congress providing some direction to what appears to be our rudderless foreign policy. The sanctions approach should be supported by the White House.

But sanctions are only part of the international puzzle. Regarding Iran, for example, Trump said last week that he would be “surprised” if the United States recertifies Iran to be in compliance with its promises under the nuclear deal when the government is next called upon to make such a determination. However, just last month — and despite Trump’s ongoing criticism of the nuclear agreement — his top security advisers recommended that he certify Iran as compliant, and with great reluctance, he did. He now appears to be having second and third thoughts about that certification, and has threatened to cancel the whole deal. “If [Iran] … doesn’t conform to what it’s supposed to conform to, it’s going to be big, big problems for them,” Trump said. “That I can tell you. Believe me.”

If the Iran deal collapses and leads to a military confrontation, that will be a “big, big problem” for Israel and for other nations in the Middle East. Indeed, it could also be a “big, big problem” for the United States, which could easily get sucked into any such conflict. Something more than a vague threat of a “big, big problem” is needed in order to navigate this tricky problem.

Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, its hostility to Israel, its support for terrorism and its role as an ally of Russia, the Assad government in Syria and Hezbollah demand a serious response. That’s where economic sanctions come in. The nuclear deal is a separate issue, on a separate track, and Iran seems to be complying with it. Efforts to kill the nuclear deal at a time when it appears to be working threaten to put a whole lot of countries in a whole lot of pain.

Congress should continue to use its power of the purse to move our adversaries toward better behavior. Economic sanctions work. The president should let Congress do its job and leave well enough alone, for now, with respect to the Iran nuclear deal.

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