Republican senators warn Biden they could block new Iran nuclear deal

Letter signed by Ted Cruz and 32 colleagues demands president comply with legislation giving Congress oversight on nuclear pacts with Tehran, complicating talks to reenter deal

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks past American flags, Tuesday, Feb., 1, 2022, after attending a weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, walks past American flags, Tuesday, Feb., 1, 2022, after attending a weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As talks to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear deal restarted in Vienna Tuesday, US President Joe Biden was reminded of another obstacle, this time at home, to a smooth return to the agreement.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a letter dated February 7 to Biden emphasizing that the bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the administration to submit within five days any new nuclear agreement to Congressional oversight.

“We are committed to using the full range of options and leverage available to United States Senators to ensure that you meet those obligations, and that the implementation of any agreement will be severely if not terminally hampered if you do not,” read the letter, co-signed by 32 of Cruz’s Republican Senate colleagues.

“The submission of such materials then triggers a statutorily-defined review process, and includes the possibility of Congress blocking implementation of the agreement.” the senators wrote.

The letter also warned that any agreement that is not a Senate-ratified treaty could be reversed by a new president in January 2025.

Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at the Coburg Palace, venue of the talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna, on February 8, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

A treaty, which is far more difficult to pass or rescind than an executive order, is required by the US Constitution to be approved by two-thirds of the Senate, an unlikely scenario in a chamber with 50 GOP senators. The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), notably, is not a treaty, which enabled former president Donald Trump to unilaterally withdraw from the deal in 2018 without consulting Congress.

President Barack Obama signed INARA into law in May 2015, giving Congress the opportunity to review any nuclear deal with Iran, and prohibiting sanctions relief for the 30-day review period.

“Unless the administration is prepared to defy the statute, its only alternative for avoiding congressional review of its policy will be to unilaterally lift sanctions and trust Iran to reciprocate by coming back into full compliance itself,” explained former assistant secretary of state Stephen Rademaker last year.

In the event that the US and Iran do reach a deal in the coming weeks, INARA would further require Biden to submit certification of Iran’s compliance every 90 days. Without the certification, Republicans in both houses could call floor votes on reimposing sanctions on Iran.

In June, GOP members of the House sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminding him of the administration’s obligations under the law.

Signs of trouble for Biden have cropped up from the Democratic side of the aisle as well. Senator Robert Menendez (D- New Jersey) launched an expression of no confidence in the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal last week.

Democratic US Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, December 3, 2019, in Washington, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/ Alex Brandon)

“At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?” said Menendez, speaking on the Senate floor.

Menendez is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will have the power to exact considerable oversight over the reentry of the United States into the deal, which trades sanctions relief for Iran’s rollback of its nuclear program.

Biden wants to reenter the deal, brokered by the Obama administration when he was vice president, because he sees it as the most efficient means of keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.

Menendez said he was optimistic at first about Biden’s plans to reenter the deal as long as Iran agreed to extend its nuclear enrichment rollback provisions and expand the deal to cover missile delivery systems.

However, Iran has proven recalcitrant especially since the election last year of a hard-line government under President Ebrahim Raisi, and Menendez wondered what the point was of continued negotiations to reenter the deal.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses a session of parliament, in Tehran, Iran, August 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

“I have yet to hear any parameters of ‘longer’ or ‘stronger’ terms or whether that is even a feasible prospect,” he said in an hour-long speech. “And even when it seemed a constructive agreement might be possible last summer, upon taking office, the Raisi government abandoned all previous understandings and, as I mentioned, made absolutely clear that Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional proxy networks are ‘not negotiable.’”

Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, reinstituting sanctions suspended during the deal and adding many more. In retaliation, Iran stopped complying with components of the deal and stepped up its enrichment of nuclear fissile material. It is now close to weaponization levels.

Menendez was among a handful of Democrats who opposed the 2015 deal, but who also opposed Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, saying it would make matters worse.

JTA contributed to this report. 

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