Senators Continue Their Skepticism on the Biden Administration’s Iran Position
The White House faces resistance from Republicans and Democrats alike as the efforts to revive a nuclear deal have stalled.
Good morning. Congress is back from recess this week, and members are going to be busy. Gun policy talks are continuing in the Senate, the House is gearing up for the January 6 Committee’s public hearing on Thursday night, and members are having important annual subcommittee meetings this week as they work on this year’s defense authorization package.
Iran Talks Receive Hill Pushback
Few policy issues pit President Joe Biden against leading lawmakers of his own party, but the United States’ Iran policy—a lightning rod in American politics since the Islamic Republic’s inception in 1979—is certainly among them. For more than a year, the president and administration officials have sought to convince reluctant congressional allies that halting Iran’s nuclear program requires a diplomatic approach.
Amid a growing list of bold demands by Tehran and technological advances in its enrichment processes, however, ongoing talks in Vienna to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), now appear stalled with little hope of a breakthrough. And recent testimony by the United States’ leading negotiator, as well as discoveries by the United Nations’ atomic watchdog, have done little to put lawmakers’ minds at ease.
Last week, two leaked reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed perhaps the most alarming milestone yet: Iran has stockpiled roughly enough uranium enriched to 60 percent to build a nuclear weapon. The stash puts Iranian officials just weeks from reaching the quantity of weapons-grade uranium necessary to construct a bomb should they choose to enrich further, to 90 percent.
State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed on Friday that the U.S. will join Britain, France, and Germany in putting forth this week to the IAEA Board of Governors a draft resolution condemning Iran’s illicit nuclear activity, potentially putting the final nail in the coffin of a restored JCPOA. The watchdog recently documented uranium particles at three undeclared sites in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a discovery that Iran has thus far failed to address.
“It’s one of the most important aspects of the ongoing standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, because fundamentally you cannot construct a nuclear agreement with a regime that conceals clandestine nuclear sites and activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Richard Goldberg, a former national security official and senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained. “The first thing the U.S. and its allies need to do before any sanctions relief is granted to Iran, or before any legitimization of its nuclear program is ever granted, is to first demand a complete and verifiable accounting of all of Iran’s nuclear activities, past and present.”
For some lawmakers, Iran’s fast march toward weaponization underscores the dire need to reinstate the 2015 JCPOA, which, in theory, would re-impose robust monitoring mechanisms and enrichment limits on Iran’s nuclear program. For others, Iran’s recent advances signal the failure of the Biden administration’s talks with Iranian negotiators through intermediary countries in Vienna, Austria, which for more than a year have failed to yield results.
“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,” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week. “Hope is not a national security strategy.”
Menendez made a similar case during a committee hearing with U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley last month, pointing to the Biden administration’s failure to fully enforce existing U.S. sanctions targeting different sectors of the Iranian government and economy, including its international trade: “Iran thinks it has options. If Iran wants to extract a better deal or concede less than U.S. national security demands, it can turn to its autocratic allies.” In March, the Iranian regime exported between 700,000 and 900,000 barrels of oil to China per day.
“You probably saw that my counterpart was about as irritated with that as I was. You’d hope that the administration would take a clue from that, but they don’t seem to be. They just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview with The Dispatch on Monday. “They really ought to walk away, but it’s important that they don’t just walk away. They’ve got a lot of stuff that they need to do when they walk away, and it starts with the enforcement of sanctions.”
“The secretary of state, before he was secretary of state, sat right where you’re sitting and said, ‘Don’t worry, [the new deal] is going to be longer and stronger.’ And I said, ‘You know, that’s just a bumper sticker. What do you mean by that?’,” Risch added. “It’s not longer, it’s not stronger, and it isn’t even in existence.”
Malley, meanwhile, told senators that the prospects for reaching a renewed agreement were “tenuous at best” as Iran pushes for concessions outside the scope of the original deal, such as the lifting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) foreign terrorist organization designation. Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators—including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—passed a non-binding motion to prevent the administration from lifting the IRGC’s designation as a condition of the talks.
In the event that this round of diplomacy falls through, the U.S. and allies will have to contend with the ‘what now?’ as they seek to address Iran’s developing nuclear program. To many lawmakers and experts, one of the first steps should be reestablishing deterrence in the U.S.’s Iran policy—through both the credible threat of military action and economic and political penalties for nuclear and conventional military aggression.
“The United States must demonstrate we have the will—as well as the military capabilities if absolutely necessary—to defend our people and our interests,” Menendez said during last month’s hearing.
Risch, meanwhile, places his hope for atomic de-escalation not in the U.S., but in its foremost Middle Eastern ally. “I’ve lost all confidence in the ability of the United States to do anything here. But I have great, great confidence in another entity that is going to see that the Iranians never have a nuclear weapon, and that is Israel,” he told The Dispatch. “I have sat across the table over the years with numerous officials from Israel who looked me right in the eye and said: ‘Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. We will see to it.’ And you know what, I believe them.”
On the Floor
The House will consider several small business-related bills this week. Members will also weigh a water resources package. Democratic leaders plan to bring forward two bills responding to recent mass shootings, including an extreme risk protection order measure and one to raise the federal minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles to 21.
The Senate continues to consider executive nominees, including expected confirmation of officials in the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy today. Senators are also expected to bring forward a bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting this morning on domestic terror threats after the white supremacist shooting in Buffalo, New York. Information and livestream here.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is appearing before the Senate Finance Committee this morning for a hearing on President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget. Information and livestream here.
A panel of senators is meeting this morning for a hearing on the Western water crisis and persistent drought. Information and livestream here.
The Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing this afternoon on European energy security after Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine. Information and livestream here.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee will meet Wednesday morning on the need to address gun violence. Information and livestream here.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Thursday morning on terrorism and cryptocurrency. Information and livestream here.
The select committee on the January 6 attack on the Capitol will hold a public hearing Thursday night. Information and livestream here.
A House Oversight subcommittee will meet Friday morning to examine the U.S. and international humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine. Information and livestream here.