WASHINGTON – At a critical moment in the nuclear talks with Iran, U.S. opponents of the emerging deal with Tehran are raising the pressure on President Joe Biden.
The talks have entered a crisis after Russia tried to tie the fate of any future Iran deal to assurances related to the harsh sanctions placed on its economy due to the war in Ukraine, a demand that the other world powers involved in the talks have rejected. While negotiators in Vienna try to untangle this diplomatic situation, politicians in Washington are going on the attack against Biden's Iran policy.
The latest tidal wave of opposition began when 12 House Democrats, led by Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Elaine Luria, were joined by nine Republicans to sign a letter to Biden signaling their opposition to a re-entry into the 2015 Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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The lawmakers said it was “hard to envision supporting an agreement along the lines being publicly discussed,” citing previously reported provisions up for discussion — namely the potential removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, as well as sanctions on members of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s inner circle.
The lawmakers further requested a briefing from administration officials to address a number of questions — including matters pertaining to congressional review, Iran’s breakout time and potential Russian and Iranian economic benefits. Despite the House lawmakers’ notable opposition, Congress would not likely be able to block a potential new deal’s implementation.
One hundred and forty bipartisan lawmakers wrote a separate letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noting their concerns with the talks and urging the administration to seek an agreement addressing the “full range of threats that Iran poses to the region,” not just the nuclear aspect.
Opposition is also growing from establishment organizations in the U.S. Jewish community.
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American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris wrote Blinken to sharply criticize both the original JCPOA and the deal currently emerging from Vienna. “If the final result in Vienna is a return to essentially the same inadequate 2015 package,” wrote Harris, “we will be left to wonder on what basis such an agreement advances regional and global security.”
“In your confirmation hearing and other remarks over the last year, you have stated that the administration’s objective in reentering negotiations with Iran was to produce a ‘longer and stronger’ agreement, implying recognition of the unfulfilled aspirations of the 2015 nuclear deal. It is AJC’s earnest hope that the process underway in Vienna since last spring will yield the agreement you set as your goal,” Harris added.
Earlier this week, the IRGC claimed responsibility for firing 12 ballistic missiles at Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. It claimed to target Israeli “strategic centers,” according to state media, warning that “any repetition of attacks by Israel will be met with a harsh, decisive and destructive response.”
While the strike did not damage the nearby U.S. consulate, and U.S. officials walked back claims that an Israeli training facility was indeed the target, Iran deal critics were quick to link the strike to the nuclear talks. Rep. Luria said “if reports are accurate, the Biden Administration must withdraw its negotiations with Iran. We cannot re-enter a failed JCPOA to further empower Iran and threaten global security.”
Following the attack, every Republican senator except for Senator Rand Paul consolidated the party’s opposition to Biden’s diplomatic efforts, saying that they would do everything in their power to fight any agreement that doesn’t completely block Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, constrain its ballistic missile program and address its funding of terrorism.
“Condemning a deal that is not yet formulated is akin to condemning diplomacy itself, not a very thoughtful position,” Paul said regarding his abstention from the joint statement.
A unified Republican Party opposing a new deal with Iran will certainly add roadblocks ahead of the November midterm elections, likely pushing for a number of public hearings in Congress on the subject that will create politically damaging headlines for Biden. Further, they would have even more leverage over Biden should they reclaim Congress as widely anticipated, resulting in a cascade of new anti-Iran legislation. This would put Biden in a precarious position where he would have to either veto these bills or sign into law policies that directly contradict his administration's own priorities.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, perhaps the most ardent Democratic senator advocating for a diplomatic path forward, sharply criticized the Republican senators for their position.
“It’s insane that Senate Republicans are urging President Biden to walk away from an agreement to rejoin the JCPOA. Their alternative – maintaining the maximum pressure strategy – has already proven a failure. A ‘no deal’ outcome leaves Iran on the doorstep of developing a nuclear weapon and sets off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which would be a disaster for the world,” he said.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday that despite the administration’s continued belief that a mutual return to full JCPOA implementation is the best course of action, “if external factors make JCPOA reimplementation impossible, we will of course be open to diplomatic alternatives. We’re not going to speculate; we hope not to have to get there. But we will soon have a better sense as to whether a path to mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA remains viable.”
Price added that “we should have a better sense in the near future whether there is a path forward for these specific talks. I don’t want to go into it beyond that, but when it comes to these external factors, when it comes to these outstanding issues, we should have a better sense in the coming days.”