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Biden is betting Republican senators lack votes to derail revival of Iran nuclear deal

NBC News logo NBC News 3/2/2022 Dan De Luce
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As world powers and Iran appear poised to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the Biden administration is gambling it can withstand fierce Republican opposition and return the U.S. to the arms control accord.

Republican lawmakers have warned the White House that if the administration refuses to submit the Iran nuclear agreement to the Senate for review, it will have a political fight on its hands.

In a letter to Biden last month, 33 Republican senators said they were ready to use “the full range of options and leverage available” to ensure the White House sought approval from Congress and “that the implementation of any agreement will be severely if not terminally hampered if you do not.”

But supporters of the nuclear deal, Democratic lawmakers and administration officials believe Republicans won’t be able to muster enough votes to stop a revival of the accord.

“I think the cards would play out in a way that it would hold,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group that supported lawmakers who backed the 2015 deal.

After the deal was originally negotiated seven years ago, opponents warned that lawmakers who backed it could be punished by voters. But no members of Congress who endorsed the 2015 deal lost their seats because of their support.

The political lesson from seven years ago “is that this can withstand the headwinds,” Ben-Ami said.

And although Democrats face a tough midterm election this year in which they could lose control of both the House and the Senate, the nuclear deal isn’t registering as an issue for voters, and it’s unlikely to be a factor in the elections this fall, Ben-Ami said.

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The 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the easing of economic sanctions. But President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018, calling it the “worst deal ever.” 

The Republicans say any revival of the 2015 deal must be reviewed and approved by Congress, arguing that the accord is equivalent to a treaty and would require approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

The Biden administration has said repeatedly that it isn’t negotiating a new agreement but is taking part in international talks to bring Iran and the U.S. back into compliance with the 2015 deal. 

Under a law passed after the 2015 deal, the president is required to submit any new agreement with Iran to the Senate for a 30-day review. But the White House is expected to argue that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act doesn’t apply in this case and that U.S. negotiators have merely worked out the details of returning to the original 2015 deal.

“The administration will carefully consider the facts and circumstances of any U.S. return to the JCPOA to determine the legal implications, including those under INARA,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.  

“The president believes that a bipartisan approach to Iran is the strongest way to safeguard U.S. interests for the long-term, and administration officials have reached out at all levels to members of Congress and their staff to discuss our approach to Iran.” 

Even if Republicans fail to stop a renewal of the nuclear deal, they appear ready to try to disrupt its implementation, or at least create headaches for the Biden administration. One of the Republicans leading the effort, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has already shown his ability to undercut the Biden administration’s agenda in Congress over a different issue. 

For months, Cruz held up the confirmations of dozens of nominees for State Department positions after the Biden administration decide not to impose sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe. 

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last week, the White House lifted waivers it had introduced and imposed sanctions on the pipeline. Cruz promptly lifted his block on the State Department nominees.

Republican aides and opponents of the deal privately acknowledge that it’s unlikely that GOP lawmakers could persuade enough Democrats to stop the deal. But they frequently accuse Biden of showing weakness toward China or other U.S. adversaries and cite the nuclear deal as another example.

They also have vowed that if a Republican is elected to the White House in 2024, the new president will immediately withdraw the U.S. from the deal.

Iran is aware of the political dynamics in Washington, and it has asked for guarantees that the U.S. won’t once again dump the deal. But U.S. officials have told Iran that no such guarantee is possible, as there is no way to tie the hands of the next president.

Even if there are no guarantees, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said in a recent interview that Congress and European parliaments should declare their support for a return to the deal.

“At the very least their parliaments, or heads of parliaments, including Congress in America, should issue a political statement announcing their support of the agreement and a return to J.C.P.O.A.,” Abdollahian said, according to The Financial Times.

Iran says it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons and that its uranium enrichment work is for purely peaceful purposes.

In 2015, before the deal was signed, supporters and opponents engaged in a bitter debate in Washington over its merits. In an extraordinary step that enraged the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a speech to a joint session of Congress, attacking the deal that President Barack Obama had championed. 

The current Israeli government opposes a return to the JCPOA and has conveyed its views to the White House, diplomats say. But it has adopted different tactics from those of Netanyahu, avoiding public attacks on the Biden administration.

The prospect for a return to the 2015 deal has reopened the debate in Washington over the benefits of the accord, with supporters and opponents echoing the arguments they made seven years ago. 

Advocates say the deal offers the best way to ensure Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons, by restoring limits on its uranium enrichment and allowing U.N. inspectors to monitor the program, including undeclared nuclear sites. 

But opponents say some of the deal’s provisions are due to expire over the next several years, including a U.N. ban on ballistic missile launches, restrictions on advanced centrifuges and a “snapback” mechanism that allows world powers to reimpose sanctions if they conclude Tehran is violating the deal. They also argue that Iran has gained valuable technical knowledge related to uranium enrichment that can’t be erased, even if the agreement is revived. 

“All that’s happened is Iran has now raced forward with its technological capability and is going to be allowed to keep all of that technological capability intact,” said Richard Goldberg, who worked on Iran policy in the Trump administration and is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The Biden administration appears ready to lift not only the sanctions that were covered in the original deal but also many of the sanctions Trump introduced after he pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, Goldberg said.

All indications are that “this agreement gives more in sanctions relief while requiring less in nuclear commitments than the 2015 deal,” Goldberg said.

Opponents also cite appeals from a group of U.S. military veterans and their families who have called on the Biden administration not to release frozen funds to Iran as part of nuclear negotiations until U.S. victims of past terrorist attacks carried out by the Tehran regime or its proxies are compensated.

Supporters of the deal, however, argue that the alternative is to allow Iran to operate without full scrutiny from U.N. inspectors and to acquire enough fissile material for a bomb without notice. 

When the deal was in force, Iran’s so-called breakout time — the amount of time before it would secure enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — was 12 months. But after the U.S. withdrew and Iran blew past many of the restrictions in the deal, arms control experts estimate that the breakout time now is three weeks or even less. 

Since the U.S. left the agreement, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, creating a “dangerous situation,” the State Department spokesperson said. 

“We are negotiating a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA. This is in America’s national interest. It is the best available option to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and provide a platform to address Iran’s destabilizing conduct,” the spokesperson said.

But the spokesperson added: “If Iran demands more or offers less than a full mutual return to implementation, these negotiations will not succeed.”

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