Biden could strike a deal with Iran, but US law poses obstacles at home
“Menendez will not make it easy for Biden, especially that the latter needs him to get his senior foreign policy appointees confirmed [in Senate],” Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute Randa Slim told Al Arabiya English
The US and Iran are in Vienna this week with the hope of rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal, but a law in Congress and domestic factors pose significant obstacles that President Joe Biden will need to clear if he hopes to reach an agreement with Tehran.
US President Joe Biden said Iran needed to come back into full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before lifting economic sanctions levied by the Trump administration.
The Iranian regime has said the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal, so they must first lift sanctions before Tehran makes any concessions.
The start of a long process, the Biden administration officials seem anxious to expedite the talks.
But the US president and his administration will face a sharply divided domestic audience and political minefield.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to present Biden with his first challenge. Menendez criticized and did not support the 2015 nuclear deal when Barack Obama was the US president.
Menendez and Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and staunch critic of Biden, penned a letter with more than 40 senators calling on Biden to strike a comprehensive deal with Iran. This would need to include more than just Iran’s nuclear program, the senators said.
“Menendez will not make it easy for Biden, especially that the latter needs him to get his senior foreign policy appointees confirmed [in Senate],” Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute Randa Slim told Al Arabiya English.
Congress and INARA
Legal ramifications of a US return to the JCPOA face the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). Based on the original JCPOA, the US president has to present Congress with a periodic explanation of why such a deal serves national security interests. If the president fails to do so, Congress has the authority to fast-track legislation that can reimpose US sanctions that are otherwise lifted under the JCPOA.
Every 90 days, the president has to prove to Congress that he can certify the following:
- Iran is fully implementing the agreement.
- Iran has not committed a material breach of the agreement.
- Iran has not taken any action that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program.
- Suspension of sanctions against Iran is appropriate and proportionate to measures taken by Iran concerning terminating its illicit nuclear program and vital to US national security interests.
Biden could argue that a new deal has been agreed, deeming it not subject to INARA, although the law states that the president “shall keep Congress fully informed of any initiative or negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program, including any new or amended agreement.”
Republicans will undoubtedly argue that Biden must comply with INARA.
The Iranian delegation is full of bankers and oilmen.— Tom Cotton (@SenTomCotton) April 6, 2021
They’ve come to Vienna expecting US sanctions concessions from the Biden team. https://t.co/NParjm0IbG
“Biden will want to assert he doesn’t have to. There will be a showdown,” a Republican Senate aide told Al Arabiya English.
Separately, the various types of sanctions are bogged down in technical and legal details that the Trump administration carefully studied to make it difficult for future administrations to undo.
Nuclear sanctions coupled with terrorism sanctions and human rights abuse sanctions will be challenging to disentangle without a legal battle.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood previously told Al Arabiya that the US would lift “certain,” but not all, sanctions on Iran if it returned to JCPOA compliance.
Traditional US allies in the Middle East, Gulf
Biden has also been faced with increased pressure by friends and foes to strike a more comprehensive deal with Iran, including its ballistic missile program and support to militias across the Middle East.
The issues have been a major point of concern for Washington’s Gulf allies and Israel. And the regional powers reportedly continue to look on with skepticism over the lack of coordination for a second deal, as was the case in 2015.
Asked by Al Arabiya English if the US consulted with its Gulf allies and Israel, or if they would carry their concerns to next week’s talks, a State Department official refused to comment “on any private diplomatic discussions.”
“But again, I’ll reiterate what was shared earlier in that the issues that will be discussed are nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA as well as the sanction relief steps that the United States would need to take to return to the compliance as well,” Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said last week.
Iran’s local currency and economy have been battered by the sanctions and have impeded its ability to support its proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.
With presidential elections in Iran slated for later this year and conservatives expected to see a candidate from their side of the political aisle become the next Iranian president, political analysts in Washington believe Tehran may try to stall any progress.
US officials have struck a downbeat tone over expectations for an imminent breakthrough after the indirect talks, although they said this was the first step toward returning to the “right path.”
Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the talks would “rapidly finalize sanction-lifting and nuclear measures for choreographed removal of all sanctions, followed by Iran ceasing remedial measures.” This suggested that Iran would not make any moves, as previously declared until the US lifted sanctions.