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A handful of Democrats raise qualms over Iran nuke deal, as odds of revival shrink

5 House members hold press conference to voice concern about possible IRGC delisting, backed by over a dozen other likeminded lawmakers; Blinken expresses pessimism on Vienna talks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

(L-R) Reps. Juan Vargas, Dean Phillips, Josh Gottheimer, Donald Norcross and Elaine Luria speak at a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 6, 2022. (Courtesy)
(L-R) Reps. Juan Vargas, Dean Phillips, Josh Gottheimer, Donald Norcross and Elaine Luria speak at a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers expressed reservations Wednesday over US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, exposing cracks within the party as Washington attempts to finalize an elusive agreement with Tehran.

Five Democratic representatives held a press conference to publicly speak out about the pact, and another 13 House members signed onto a corresponding press release summarizing misgivings with reported facets of the deal being crafted by world powers in Vienna. The lawmakers are part of the party’s small hawkish flank, which amounts to less than 10 percent of the Democratic congressional caucus.

In the Senate, four of the 48 Democrats have also raised concerns about the administration’s push to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, though this number is still is a far cry from the 10 votes Republicans would need to block Biden from re-implementing the accord.

It remains unclear when a deal could be reached, as negotiations between world powers in Vienna aimed at a joint US-Iran return to the JCPOA appear to have hit a dead end over Tehran’s reported insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terror Organizations (FTO).

Still, Democratic voices against the deal have been growing louder in recent weeks and may play a role in US negotiators taking a harder line if and when they return to Vienna to resume talks.

The representatives at Wednesday’s presser presented varying degrees of discomfort with the possibility of a revived JCPOA. Their concerns focused largely on the possible IRGC delisting, along with the limited scope of the agreement, which doesn’t extend to Iran’s ballistic missile activity or support for proxies throughout the region.

I’m here today – joined by a strong group of Members of Congress – to raise concerns about the looming Iran deal. With reports indicating that the United States has reached the last phase of the Vienna negotiations, it’s critical that we do not cave to demands from Iran — the leading state-sponsor of terror and a dictatorial government.Tune in here.

Posted by Rep Josh Gottheimer on Wednesday, April 6, 2022

“As the Vienna negotiations come to a close, we cannot treat the FTO designation — one of our most powerful diplomatic tools used to get cold-blooded killers out of the terrorist business — as a cheap bargaining chip,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. “If Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, has proven anything, it’s that they can’t be trusted.”

Asked earlier Wednesday during an interview if the Biden administration is indeed weighing an Iranian demand to delist the IRGC, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to respond, saying only that the paramilitary force is indeed a terror group.

Administration officials have somewhat confirmed they are considering such a move, saying far more significant economic sanctions will remain on the IRGC and that the US will continue to combat Iran’s malign activity, regardless of whether there is a joint return to the JCPOA.

Lawmakers also took issue with the current deal’s 2030 sunset clauses, arguing that the US should not agree to any accord that doesn’t “permanently” prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“The old JCPOA did not work, and any new deal that does not prevent Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon is unacceptable,” said Virginia Representative Elaine Luria.

The Biden administration has maintained that the nuclear deal — which traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program — was working and that Iran only began violating the terms after former president Donald Trump vacated the JCPOA in 2018. The White House argues that while the sanctions relief for Iran is not its first choice, it prefers a scenario in which Tehran’s nuclear program is contained “in a box” as opposed to the current situation in which Iran is not restricted by the JCPOA and is rushing toward a bomb.

Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency Kazem Gharib Abadi, Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran Abbas Araghchi, and Deputy Secretary General and Political Director of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora stand in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Vienna’ where where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

Israel argues that Iran is only seeking to revive the deal to receive billions in sanctions relief before returning to its nuclear activity once many of the deal’s restrictions sunset. Even after that happens though, an inspections regime will permanently remain in place at Iranian nuclear sites.

Still, Biden during the campaign vowed to negotiate a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran that would also address its ballistic missile program and support for regional proxies. Those pledges have all but ceased since his first few months in office.

“We need a longer and stronger deal, not one that is shorter and weaker,” Gottheimer said.

“Sunset clauses merely delay the regime’s ability to enrich uranium or develop a nuclear arsenal and, regardless of when, this is unacceptable. Iran must never be allowed to become a nuclear threat to the world. Not today. Not ten or fifteen years from now. Not ever,” said Representative Donald Norcross of New Jersey.

In his remarks, Minnesota’s Representative Dean Phillips made a point of addressing a key talking point of JCPOA supporters, dismissing the notion that he opposes a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear threat.

“I want to make something abundantly clear. I am not opposed to an agreement. I am opposed to an agreement that does not absolutely, positively prevent Iran from either producing or obtaining nuclear weapons. I believe I speak for an overwhelming majority of the United States Congress to that end,” he added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to members of the media before departing for Brussels from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, April 5, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Also present at the press conference was Representative Juan Vargas of California, who most vociferously criticized the JCPOA.

The other signatories of the joint press release were not present at the Wednesday event, possibly indicating the issue’s saliency among Democrats wary of the deal. Those members were Representatives Kevin Boyle, Shontel Brown, Jim Costa, Val Demings, Lois Frankel, Jared Golden, Tony González, Susie Lee, Kathy Manning, Grace Meng, Darren Soto, Haley Stevens and Tom Suozzi.

Hours earlier, Blinken told NBC that he is “not overly optimistic” about the prospects for a joint US-Iran return to compliance with the nuclear deal.

“Despite all the efforts we put into it and despite the fact that I believe… our security would be better off. We’re not there,” he said.

“Time is getting extremely short,” he added.

Biden officials have for months insisted that the window to return to the JCPOA is rapidly closing, given Iran’s accelerated nuclear activity that at some point will render the deal irrelevant.

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