Joe Biden’s nascent bid to revive the Iran nuclear deal for a “longer, stronger” diplomatic agreement is already facing deep skepticism and potential hurdles in Congress — including from the president’s own party.
GOP hawks are making sure that they’ll have a say, and potentially an effective veto power, over any attempt by the Biden administration to roll back the aggressive sanctions that former President Donald Trump levied on Tehran after withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear nonproliferation accord with Iran.
While Biden administration officials are holding indirect talks with the Iranians in Vienna, Republicans are discussing strategies to make it harder for Biden to reenter the nuclear agreement, most likely by using legislative tools tied to the sanctions Trump put in place. Many in the GOP are determined to smother any Biden-led comeback for the Iran deal — especially absent a more comprehensive pact that addresses Iran’s support for terrorism and other malign actions.
And the White House’s growing set of challenges in shaping any Iran Deal 2.0 go beyond the GOP: Democrats want the president to resist the urge to seek a broader set of concessions from Tehran, saying it will sink U.S. chances of reentering the agreement. But fellow Democrats are also warning of an increasingly rocky path back to full Iranian compliance with the terms of the 2015 deal, particularly after recently leaked audio revealed Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, lamenting the influence of the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in his diplomatic efforts with the West.
“I’m all for a longer, stronger deal with Iran, but that only happens after we get back into the JCPOA,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a brief interview, using the abbreviation for the 2015 deal also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “If we were to insist that we do a comprehensive deal to include their support for terrorist groups, their human-rights record, their ballistic missile programs — it would be a death knell to the JCPOA.”
The leaked audio made headlines for Zarif’s references to Biden climate adviser and former Secretary of State John Kerry, but the Iranian minister’s comments also signaled to lawmakers that moderate forces in Iran are taking a back seat to more extremist hard-liners who are hesitant to engage with the U.S. and other western nations. Such a trend indicates to some senior Democrats that getting both the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 agreement will be a herculean task at best.
“Zarif’s comments certainly at least complicate the picture. You’ve got to wonder, what is it that they can agree to and execute on?” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who opposed the 2015 agreement with Iran.
The foreign minister’s remarks raise questions “about whether or not this makes a lot of sense in terms of what can be committed to,” Menendez added. “These are all factors that have to go into it.”
The Biden team is under no illusions about its difficult road to reengagement with Iran after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed biting new sanctions against the regime in Tehran, an approach dubbed “maximum pressure.” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said on Sunday that “there’s still fair distance to travel to close the remaining gaps, and those gaps are over what sanctions the United States and other countries will roll back” in exchange for restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program.
“Our diplomats will keep working at that over the coming weeks to try to arrive at a mutual return to the JCPOA, which is the Iran nuclear deal, on a compliance-for-compliance basis,” Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Reentering the JCPOA would almost certainly require the Biden administration to lift some of those Trump-era sanctions — which could be subject to congressional approval, including from Democratic hawks like Menendez whose opposition to the 2015 deal made for a politically painful process under then-President Barack Obama. This time around, the same key players will be eager for congressional review.
“The question is, what does ‘longer and stronger’ mean?” Menendez added, citing the phrase that Secretary of State Antony Blinken coined during his confirmation hearing earlier this year to refer to the administration’s future plans for the deal. “If we get reciprocity on the things we care about from the Iranians, there will have to be sanctions relief. But the real question is, what are you giving sanctions relief for, and what sanctions are you talking about giving up?”
Biden’s first priority is to get the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 accord, which dealt exclusively with Iran’s nuclear program. Yet his deputies are looking ahead to a broader agreement that could potentially address the country’s non-nuclear malign activities in the region, including its support for terrorist proxies and its ballistic missile program.
In the meantime, though, Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill are sounding the alarm about the importance of getting back into compliance with the 2015 deal, even if it means that other sources of tension between Washington and Tehran get left on the cutting-room floor.
“As much as I am concerned with what they’re doing to support terrorism across the Middle East, to disrupt order on transportation routes and all, I think the focus should continue to be on keeping them from getting a nuclear weapon,” added Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Despite Iran’s unwillingness to meet face-to-face with U.S. officials in Vienna, there are some early positive signs about the regime’s willingness to deal, including its recent engagement with its longtime foe Saudi Arabia on issues of importance to the Biden administration, such as a ceasefire in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Republicans are looking to a 2015 law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to help derail any effort to re-enter that year’s nuclear deal. Passed to give Congress an opportunity to weigh in on the eventual deal, the 2015 law could prove pivotal this time around by allowing lawmakers to formally reject efforts to lift the Trump administration’s sanctions.
Republicans, who uniformly opposed the 2015 deal ever since Obama reached it, are wasting no time in trashing the Biden administration’s talks as wasteful and potentially dangerous.
“[The Iranians] have done nothing to earn indirect talks or direct talks. Their behavior hasn’t changed. It’s going to be seen as appeasement,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a brief interview. “It reinforces the narrative that the West is weak … I see these negotiations as being very destabilizing for the region.”
During his first 100 days in office, Biden was forced to confront an increasingly aggressive Iran on fronts apart from its nuclear program. The president ordered airstrikes on Iran-backed assets in Syria in February as retaliation for attacks on U.S. forces in the region. Republicans have maintained that Trump’s sanctions regime gave the U.S. an extraordinary amount of leverage, and that unless Iran is willing to compromise on its support for terrorist proxies in the region, the U.S. should not return to the 2015 deal.
“It’s impossible at this point to separate the nuclear program from all the other nefarious activities that Iran is undertaking,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a brief interview.
Taking the existing 2015 review law even further, a group of GOP senators recently unveiled legislation aimed at preventing Biden from rejoining the nuclear deal. The bill would ensure that any new agreement the president reaches takes the form of a treaty, thereby requiring congressional approval. A cohort of House Republicans introduced a similar bill that would also impose even more sanctions on the Iranian regime and further hamstring the Biden team for the current negotiations.
“If they don’t do it as a treaty, then it’s just a political agreement that is only as good as the current administration,” Rubio said. “It could be changed by a future administration.”
Biden’s allies maintain that the current murkiness surrounding any return to the nuclear pact isn’t the president’s fault; rather, they argue, Trump made Biden’s task impossible when he went beyond mere withdrawal from the 2015 deal to impose brand-new sanctions that were unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program. During this spring’s talks in Vienna, Iran has demanded that all of those U.S. sanctions be scrapped.
“There’s damage that’s been done by the Trump administration’s approach that will make this more complicated,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “But it’s still the right answer to try to get the Iranians compliant again with the nuclear deal and then focusing our efforts on non-nuclear activities.”