Final stretch in Vienna: Bipartisan concerns grow

Despite these concerns, it remains unclear what path the Biden administration would take with Congress.

By Sean Savage, JNS.org

As the Iran nuclear negotiations appear to be heading into the final stretch, U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been expressing growing concern over what the final agreement, if reached, will bring.

Recently, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned the Biden administration’s strategy with Iran, saying, “at this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?”

Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, told JNS that Menendez speech was part of a growing impatience among lawmakers on both sides of the negotiations to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018, and what concessions the Biden administration may make.

“Senator Menendez was giving voice to the bipartisan concern over the shorter and weaker Iran nuclear deal that is emerging in Vienna. If we learned anything from 2015, it is that an agreement with Iran can’t just pass muster among Obama-Biden policymakers, the P4+1 and Iran.

“Returning to such an agreement will not be politically sustainable for the United States. Senator Menendez’s speech was a wake-up call for the need to think outside of the JCPOA box that has paralyzed transatlantic thinking on Iran.”

Talks resumed in Vienna last week between Iran and the world powers (Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and the United States) about getting both sides back into compliance on the nuclear deal. This round of talks appears to be the final one with reports that a decision on reviving 2015 could be imminent.

On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his country’s lawmakers that it could come within a matter of days.

“We are coming … to the hour of truth,” he said, reported CNN. “It’s not a matter of weeks; it’s a matter of days.”

Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani also said that the parties to the deal were “closer than ever to an agreement.”

But he also warned that things could fall apart.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said in a tweet. “Our negotiating partners need to be realistic, avoid intransigence and heed lessons of past 4 yrs.”

‘Didn’t have votes to overturn a diplomatic deal’

Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that all indications are what is being discussed in Vienna right now would be a worse deal than the original JCPOA.

“It will give more concessions to Iran and leave the regime as a threshold nuclear state while giving the regime even more sanctions relief than it received under the JCPOA,” he said.

“All the while, the sunset provisions of the JCPOA will be kept in place, so that Iran will have a clear path to cross the nuclear threshold at a time of its choosing,” continued Goldberg. “Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program will be legitimized despite an active IAEA investigation into undeclared nuclear material, sites and activities inside Iran today.”

Despite these concerns, it remains unclear what path the Biden administration would take with Congress.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who backed the nuclear deal in 2015, said that while he doesn’t know if U.S. President Joe Biden would bring the deal to Congress or simply re-enter the pact, even if the president did, he didn’t see lawmakers blocking it.

“They didn’t have votes to overturn a diplomatic deal [in 2015], and I don’t think they’d have the votes to overturn a diplomatic deal now,” said Kaine, according to Reuters.

“The mood in Congress indicates concern over the direction of these negotiations. Endless discussions only benefit Iran’s nuclear program, and there are growing calls for a more coercive approach to the U.S. posture on Iran,” said Brodsky.

In a letter to Biden on Wednesday, more than 160 House Republicans warned the president that any agreement struck without congressional approval will be opposed by Republicans and overturned if Republicans retake power in the midterm elections.

“If you forge an agreement with Supreme Leader of Iran [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] without formal congressional approval, it will be temporary and non-binding and will meet the same fate as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Furthermore, Republicans said they will oppose a deal to lift sanctions if Iran has not “fully dismantled their enrichment and reprocessing-related infrastructure capabilities,” as well as ending its sponsorship of terrorism and releasing all American hostages.

Last week, more than 30 Republican senators sent a similar letter raising the possibility of Congress blocking the implementation of the agreement.

Brodsky says that Congress must demand a review under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) of whatever agreement is reached in Vienna.

“Some may argue that this deal is not subject to INARA because the JCPOA was already reviewed in 2015. But the definition of ‘agreement’ under the terms of INARA is quite broad, and if the United States rejoins a deal with a reduced breakout time as well as sanctions relief that goes beyond what was offered in 2015, those differences should be significant enough to warrant congressional review,” he said.

Back in 2015, three Democrats in addition to Menendez—Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—joined 54 Republicans in opposing the deal; however, that procedural vote fell short of the 60 needed to formally vote on the deal or the 67 needed to kill it.

“Under the INARA, the White House must submit the deal to Congress within five days and can’t lift sanctions on Iran for 30 days, giving Congress time to review and potentially reject the agreement,” said Goldberg. “Assuming the deal moves forward, Congress will have opportunities to legislate.”

Congress could pass joint resolutions opposing the revived deal, but if Biden vetoes that bill, then it would require a two-thirds majority to override, which seems unlikely.

However, Goldberg said that Congress could assert its authority to reimpose sanctions on Iran. “One big controversy will be that Biden is poised to lift U.S. terrorism sanctions on Iran without getting any halt to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. That’s a complete reversal from [former] President Barack Obama’s promise that nothing could stop the U.S. from imposing sanctions on Iran for terrorism.”

“Congress should be ready to mandate the reimposition of terrorism sanctions on all banks and companies tied to the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism,” he said.

‘Up to the P5+1 to change its calculus’

Moving forward, experts say it is hard to predict what the end result will be, especially given that Iran does not seem moving urgently towards the deal.

“It’s hard to predict whether we are headed towards a breakdown or breakthrough; it really depends on the Iranian system. The top leadership of the Islamic Republic has de-emphasized the importance of the nuclear deal, with the Supreme Leader, in particular, having not spoken at length on the nuclear file for months. That should tell U.S. policymakers something,” said Brodsky.

Brodsky sees this lack of urgency tied to China’s inroads with Iran over the past year. In 2021, Tehran and Beijing signed a major 25-year strategic pact.

“The lack of urgency in Tehran stems from the complacency over the continued illicit Chinese oil sales made possible by the lack of sanctions enforcement in the United States,” stated Brodsky.

“Iran’s leader has employed a maximum delay policy for over a year—advancing the regime’s nuclear program to such an extent that it results in a shorter and weaker agreement for the P5+1. It’s up to the P5+1 to change its calculus, and so far they have not,” he said.