Bad News for Biden: Congress Cooling on Idea of an Iran Deal
The Senate passed a non-binding resolution opposing sanctions relief for the IRGC and insisting that any deal address state-sponsored terrorism.
“It is time to tell the Europeans—who[m] we have shown good faith with, that we were willing to enter into what was hopefully a stronger and longer deal—that the Iranians are not there,” Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez told the AIPAC New Jersey spring leadership dinner last week. Sure, it was what his audience wanted to hear; AIPAC has been lobbying against Barack Obama’s Iran deal since it was first signed in 2015. But Menendez is not alone. A June 1 non-binding measure offered by Sen. Jim Lankford (R-Oklahoma) demanding that any nuclear agreement address Tehran-sponsored terrorism and opposing sanctions relief for the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps passed with every Republican but one, and 16 Democrats, including Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
And there’s more bad news for Biden administration advocates of renewing Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran deal: The Board of Governors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution condemning (with only two nations opposing) Tehran’s failure to disclose requested information about nuclear activity at three previously undisclosed sites. While the work was alleged to have taken place prior to 2003, documents spirited from Iran by Israel reveal a complex effort (which included documents stolen from the IAEA itself) to hoodwink the international nuclear agency. Any steps to condemn Iran at the IAEA would follow a two-year hiatus during which European powers and (reportedly beginning in November 2020) the Biden administration tried their best to sweet talk, cajole, bribe, and threaten Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
The IAEA resolution itself, co-sponsored by the United States, appears to be part of a last-ditch effort by Washington, London, and Paris to pressure the Iranians into rejoining the deal. For its part, however, Iran has rejected the IAEA’s plaints, has benefited from statements of support from both Russia and China, and continues to insist that in order to move forward with the United States, sanctions will need to be lifted on the IRGC. (Following the passage of the resolution, Iran turned off two U.N. cameras monitoring activity at one of its nuclear sites.) In short, it looks like Washington’s play has backfired, hardening Iranian opposition to new strictures on its nuclear weapons programs.
Looking forward, there are several key pieces that will factor into decisions in Washington and Tehran about the future of the Iranian nuclear program. The first is U.S. midterm elections. While far from the top of the hit parade of American public opinion—inflation, crime, and immigration have pride of place—Iran remains an object of concern, with the Islamic Republic’s unfavorability rates hovering in the mid 80th percentile. And while Iran is not believed to be the greatest threat to the United States, polls usually show it in the top five. Advocates for the deal may find some solace in polls that show support for a good nuclear deal that trades sanctions for concessions from Tehran. But in order to tease such results, the questions must suggest that the deal is “strict,” that Iran has “dismantled” its nuclear weapons program, and that the IAEA has complete access to all nuclear sites. None of these descriptions is correct, as the current deliberations at the IAEA make clear.
As a result, Democrats at risk in the 2022 midterm elections are rather more, not less, likely to sign on to legislation calling for the “longer and stronger” deal promised them by Team Biden. They see no need to provide their opponents an opening that is likely to fall on receptive voters’ ears. Viz the Democrats who voted with Lankford: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York ), Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire), Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), Angus King (I-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), Gary Peters (D-Michigan), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). Of the 16, five are up for re-election in 2022, three in tough races (Cortez Masto, Hassan, and Kelly).
The looming midterm elections, insists Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), are the reason Lankford was able to secure a filibuster-proof 64 votes for his motion: “It was a non-binding vote. It’s a political year,” Durbin said. “If we get down to a serious negotiation and the potential for reining in nuclear weapons in the Middle East, I think people will look at it differently.” Perhaps. But the presence of Coons among the yes votes—Coons is considered one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate—should be troubling to Durbin and his pro-Iran deal friends inside the administration. Coons insisted his yes was merely intended to strengthen the administration’s negotiating hand; but that is not the direction the administration must head in if it hopes to secure agreement from the ayatollahs.
Which brings us to the game in Iran, the second key factor in determining the JCPOA’s fate. Tehran’s presence at continuing negotiations suggests the regime remains open to a deal that lifts sanctions and halts progress on its rapidly advancing nuclear program. (They are well aware that equipment can be dismantled, but knowledge cannot.) That openness is likely what keeps indefatigable American negotiator Rob Malley coming back, even after the defection of his senior team. But it seems clear that Malley cannot deliver a respite from sanctions on the IRGC (notwithstanding reportedly having promised to do so), and Iran will accept nothing less. In addition, it has become clear over the course of the negotiations that Tehran seeks some assurance the United States will not pull another Trump and withdraw from a new deal. That’s not going to happen (because such commitments cannot be made by any president), but Congress’ repeated insistence on a better deal only underscores that Iran cannot rely on the United States to stay the course.
And there’s another reason for Iran to shy away from finalizing any deal: For as long as negotiations continue, Washington will continue its half-hearted sanctions enforcement. Indeed, Beijing is now buying more Iranian crude than before sanctions were imposed in the first place. Taken in tandem with the escalating hardening of economic blocs, Russia’s use of Iran to evade its own sanctions, and China’s newfound determination to inoculate itself from Western opprobrium, the world looks to be settling into Iran’s vision of a resistance economy—perhaps even a set of resistance economies—that may allow Tehran to have its nuclear cake and earn foreign exchange in the bargain.
In short, the omens in Washington and in Tehran are bad for a resumption of the JCPOA as it was, let alone longer or stronger. Bob Menendez was right, the Iranians are “not there.” And neither, he might have added, is the U.S. Congress.