WASHINGTON – As the U.S. approaches the end stage of negotiations aimed at reentering the Iran nuclear deal, members of Congress are preparing for what comes next with varying degrees of support.
In the days since the Biden administration has adopted a notably more optimistic tone about the talks in Vienna, senior State Department officials are openly discussing progress being made and having a potential deal in sight – while cautioning that political considerations could possibly derail the final stages.
Last week, Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sharply condemned the Biden administration’s diplomatic endeavors. “At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?” he told fellow senators.
The New Jersey lawmaker, who was one of the more vocal Democratic critics of the 2015 deal, noted that proponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action were “holding on … for nostalgia’s sake.” He added, “I have yet to hear any parameters of ‘longer’ or ‘stronger’ terms, or whether that is even a feasible prospect.”
Menendez will have significant oversight over potential reentry into the deal, and called on President Joe Biden to place greater pressure on Iran despite any fears of upending negotiations.
“These new efforts should include creative diplomatic initiatives, stricter sanctions enforcement and a steely determination from Congress to back up President Biden’s declaration that Iran will ‘never get a nuclear weapon on my watch,’” Menendez said.
Menendez’s sharp remarks were endorsed by a wide range of Iran deal skeptics, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Jewish Democrats such as Rep. Lois Frankel.
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Shortly after Menendez’s remarks, the United States restored a sanctions waiver allowing Russian, Chinese and European companies to cooperate with Iran on civil nuclear projects. This would permit them to carry out nonproliferation work to effectively make it harder for Iranian nuclear sites to be used for weapons development. The waivers were rescinded by the Americans in 2019 and 2020 under then-President Donald Trump, who had pulled out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018.
“We decided to restore a sanctions waiver to enable third party participation in nuclear nonproliferation and safety projects in Iran due to growing nonproliferation concerns, in particular with respect to increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium in Iran,” a State Department spokesperson said following the move.
Under the JCPOA, Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile was shipped out to Russia. The waiver also deals with activities including the redesign of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor (its heavy water was sent to Oman under the nuclear deal).
Since the waiver restoration was announced, 33 Republican senators, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, have written Biden, arguing that he is legally required to provide Congress with the opportunity to review any new Iran deal – even if it is not submitted for ratification as a treaty – under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). They explicitly raise the possibility of Congress blocking implementation of any new deal.
“Any agreement related to Iran’s nuclear program which is not a treaty ratified by the Senate is subject to being reversed, and will likely be torn up, in the opening days of the next presidential administration, as early as January 2025. That timeline is roughly as long as the [JCPOA] survived implementation, and potentially even shorter,” the senators wrote, forecasting the political football Iran will become ahead of the midterm elections this November.
“Any nuclear deal made between the Biden administration and Iran must fulfill the appropriate mandates and include congressional oversight. The Senate is committed to using the full range of options and leverage available to us if Biden fails to do this,” tweeted Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
However, proponents of reentry argue that INARA’s mandate for congressional review would not apply as this new deal would by definition be a reentry into the original agreement, which already went through the required congressional review process.
“Unless INARA has a clause that says less than one-third of a chamber can veto an already-reviewed agreement, this preemptive strike against JCPOA return has failed,” said J Street Senior Vice President Dylan Williams. “Even if INARA did apply to JCPOA return – which it doesn’t – it’d take more than twice as many senators to sink the deal.”
Democratic senators have since lent their support to the Biden administration’s efforts. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-chairs of the Nuclear Arms and Arms Control Working Group, said they affirmed their “support for President Biden’s diplomatic efforts to restore restraints and monitoring on Iran’s nuclear activities.”
Criticizing Trump’s “unilateral abandonment” of the Iran deal, Merkley and Markey argued that restoring the JCPOA would “verifiably close off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb through the most intrusive monitoring and inspections regime ever negotiated in a nonproliferation agreement.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, also lent his support for reentry. “The world was safer when the JCPOA … was in place,” he told fellow senators Wednesday. “The world became a much less safe place when President Trump tore up that agreement against the advice of his secretary of state, his secretary of defense.
“We have an opportunity right now to reconstruct that agreement or the most important elements of it, so that Iran once again is as far as possible from being able to obtain a nuclear weapon. That would make the region safer, that would make the United States safer, but time is of the essence,” Murphy added.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley is currently in Vienna for what could be the final round of talks on restoring the nuclear deal. He recently gave closed-door briefings to the House and Senate foreign affairs committees on the state of negotiations. Murphy called the information relayed “sobering and shocking,” describing Iran’s breakout time for achieving a nuclear weapon as weeks away and deeming JCPOA reentry as the only viable path forward.
Malley told MSNBC last week that “if we’re not in the deal, Iran is unconstrained in its nuclear advances. And that’s why we see that, as of today, they are only a few weeks away from enough enriched uranium for a bomb. As of today, our view is that getting back into the deal will be profoundly in our national security interest.”
Murphy also highlighted the vocal insistence from former senior Israeli security and defense officials that withdrawing from the deal and Trump’s subsequent maximum-pressure campaign was a mistake.
These points came shortly after Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed the state of Iran’s nuclear program, and around the time Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata arrived in Washington to meet with counterpart Jake Sullivan.
“We anticipate a year of turning points,” Hulata said on Monday in a talk with diplomatic correspondents. “Whether or not the U.S. returns to the nuclear deal, 2022 is going to be a year in which the circumstances require us to operate differently than we have operated until now, and we must be prepared. There is a risk that they return to the nuclear deal and the U.S. loses the tools that could have enabled it to impose a stronger and more long-term deal on Iran. It’s a possibility. We must be ready for every scenario, whether they return to the deal or not.”
Despite this alarm, American officials maintain awareness of the Iranian threat and opportunities for increasing cooperation between the U.S., Israel and Arab allies.
Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla, Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Central Command, told his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday that he wants an “enforceable agreement” that ensures Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. However, he warned that “renewed negotiation efforts must consider the significant changes that have occurred in the security and geopolitical environments since the 2018 American withdrawal from the agreement.”
Kurilla described burgeoning ties between Israel and Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as “probably the area with some of the greatest opportunity: working toward an integrated air and missile defense. I think the addition of Israel ... will help with that,” he said, referring to Israel’s recent incorporation into CENTCOM. “We are collectively stronger together, and there are areas where each one brings unique capabilities,” he added.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki provided an update on the nuclear talks in her press briefing on Wednesday. “A deal that addresses the core concerns of all sides is in sight. But if it is not reached in the coming weeks, Iran’s ongoing nuclear advances will make it impossible for us to return to the JCPOA,” she said.
Meanwhile, 20 organizations – including Israel-focused groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now, as well as other groups focused on foreign policy and arms control – wrote U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan, reaffirming the importance and urgency of Biden finalizing the JCPOA’s restoration.
“Many of those who cheered as Trump sabotaged the JCPOA have already made clear that the maximum pressure road ends in a full-blown war between the U.S. and Iran,” they wrote Wednesday. “A turn away from diplomacy toward a war of choice with Iran would be incredibly detrimental to U.S. national security. ... As the former head of Israel’s Iran military intelligence unit said, ‘there is no magic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, especially not through an attack.’”