If Biden Won’t Stand Up to Iran, Congress Should Stand Up to Biden

It should intervene using the legislation it passed in 2015 to force a vote to deny Iran sanctions relief.

The Biden administration’s Iran policy is collapsing, and it is well past time for Congress to intervene using a key tool it crafted in 2015: the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). Soon after President Biden took office, the United States and five other world powers—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China—engaged Iran in six rounds of talks to restore the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. The negotiations have stalled since June, shortly after the installation of Iran’s ultra-hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. The administration—in apparent desperation to revive the deal—appears on the verge of offering Iran extensive new sanctions relief that would underwrite an expansion of the regime’s malign activities.

Judging by Raisi’s appointing a slate of hardliners to his Cabinet, including Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, Tehran appears ready to steamroll U.S. negotiators. The Biden administration, which had unilaterally relaxed some U.S. sanctions and reportedly agreed to concessions above and beyond the JCPOA’s flawed terms, now appears eager to flood the Tehran regime with some $90 billion in frozen assets and to lift terrorism, ballistic missile, and human rights sanctions unrelated to the JCPOA.

What’s more, the administration is ignoring Congress’s questions about what exactly it has already agreed to. Behind the scenes, the Biden State Department is stonewalling Congress by ignoring letters from senators and representatives asking for details and documents on Iran policy and planned sanctions relief. Requests have either gone unanswered or the administration has provided insignificant information. Career officials privately report that the administration has ignored or silenced their internal concerns and objections.

Before and after Biden took office, his advisers protested Trump’s maximum economic pressure campaign that the former president instituted after withdrawing from the JCPOA. Biden’s team warned that sanctions only worsened Iran’s malign behavior and nuclear escalations. Now, the administration has had had eight months to try its approach: much-vaunted diplomacy and multilateralism, paired with a pause in enforcement of key U.S. sanctions to induce moderation in the Islamic Republic’s behavior.

The results have been disastrous. This summer alone, the return of diplomacy and conciliatory gestures has resulted in the clerical regime’s bombing of foreign oil tankers and attacks on U.S. assets in Iraq, as well as the revelation of a plot to kidnap and rendition a prominent Iranian-American dissident, Masih Alinejad, from her home in Brooklyn. And as Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted earlier this month, the regime is still targeting other American citizens, including current and former U.S. officials.

The nuclear file fares no better, where Iran is deftly outmaneuvering world powers. Tehran has enriched uranium to 60 percent and produced uranium metal—key steps toward developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has also reduced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring and stonewalled the agency’s investigation into the regime’s undeclared nuclear sites, materials, and activities. Tehran has successfully dodged IAEA board censure for its violations. 

Iran has ignored the many European and American statements of concern—from “deep concern” to “grave concern”—about Tehran’s growing nuclear activity, with zero consequence from Western capitals. Blinken is doing his best “bad cop” impression, threatening that the negotiation process would not go on forever, but the administration seems paralyzed as to what comes next. 

Meanwhile, American leverage is slipping away.

At the beginning of Biden’s term, Iran was in a massive financial crunch, left with only $4 billion in accessible foreign exchange reserves and a mounting debt and stagflation crisis brought on by the combination of American sanctions and the regime’s own gross corruption and mismanagement. The Biden administration reportedly estimated that Iran’s trade dropped by 40 percent ($18 billion) between 2019 and 2020. But in exchange for thus-far inconsequential dialogue, Iran has been able to reap the rewards of lax sanctions enforcement, nearly doubling its oil exports over 2020. This business has brought Tehran around an additional $7 billion in revenue and staved off fiscal collapse that would threaten the regime and its illicit activities.

Enough is enough. Congress should intervene against the administration’s bungled Iran policy using the legislation it passed ahead of the JCPOA’s 2015 implementation: INARA. Congress should use this law to force a vote to deny Iran sanctions relief before Washington cedes more ground to Tehran.

To date, Congress has focused on the first part of the law, which provides Congress the right to review and approve any nuclear deal reached with Iran. The statute gives Congress significant oversight over any effort by the administration to re-enter the original JCPOA or to conclude new, modified, or follow-on agreements: INARA specifies that within five calendar days after the executive branch reaches any such agreement, the president must transmit the full text to Congress for a 60-day review process.

The administration can’t provide Iran relief from sanctions imposed by Congress until the congressional review process is finished. Congress must also insist that any mechanism or bridging agreement to return all parties to compliance with the original accord would still be subject to INARA’s transmittal and review requirements.

But in the meantime, Congress should exercise another INARA oversight mechanism colloquially known as the “legislative snapback.” This tool guarantees a vote on the floor of the House and the Senate to prevent sanctions relief for the Iranian regime, if the majority or minority leaders exercise this right. The vote can occur only during a 60-day window that re-opens every 90 days due to the administration’s continued inability to certify that the Iranians are meeting their nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. The current window to initiate legislative snapback is open from September 22 until November 21. Since the Biden administration has not yet re-entered the JCPOA, Republican congressional leadership should avail themselves of the opportunity to pursue the legislative snapback. The leadership must act before the Biden administration attempts to present JCPOA re-entry as a fait accompli and gives the regime access to frozen assets.

Both houses of Congress would need to pass a joint simple-majority resolution to prevent sanctions from lifting, which would then go to the president, who would certainly veto it. It is unlikely that Congress could override a presidential veto with the required two-thirds majority, given that Democrats hold majorities in the House and Senate, and many would feel compelled to support a key Biden foreign policy initiative. A Republican-controlled Congress was similarly unable to muster enough votes to stop the JCPOA in 2015, although 61 percent of members opposed the accord, including 25 House Democrats and four Senate Democrats. However, House minority leaders could still attempt to reach the two-thirds threshold as Democrats’ frustration with Biden’s policy continues to mount.

Regardless of the outcome, a vote on this matter indicating significant congressional opposition would send a strong message to Tehran that the next Republican president will likely restore sanctions unless Iran agrees to cease all manner of malign activities. A vote would also demonstrate to the international business community the risks of engaging in the Iranian economy: U.S. sanctions may return. A symbolic vote would further show that Iran cannot bully the United States through nuclear extortion without consequence.

Likewise, Congress can use the review process associated with INARA to pressure the Biden administration to take tangible and decisive action against Iran for its continuing targeting of American citizens and other international provocations. Until now, Congress has taken few concrete actions to counter Iran’s malign activities, and there have been no significant Iran-related votes in either the House or the Senate since Biden took office. The House of Representatives has signaled some initial action this week, including several provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that mandate the administration to report to Congress on terrorism-related sanctions relief, and Tehran’s military development and partnership with China.

A snapback vote under INARA would provide a much firmer, even if symbolic, political backstop against massive concessions by U.S. negotiators, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot hold the line against Iran’s blackmail. Congress must act now to rein in the administration’s worst foreign policy impulses. Starting INARA’s legislative snapback process would restore Congress’ much-needed oversight over Biden’s Iran policy.

Gabriel Noronha is the executive director of the Forum for American Leadership and previously served as the State Department’s special adviser for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran Action Group. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow them on Twitter @GLNoronha, @StrickerNonpro, and @MatthewZweig1.