With the Iranian election done, the jockeying resumes for negotiating leverage over a potential return to mutual compliance with the Iran nuclear deal among the parties in the Vienna talks. With that jockeying comes a renewed interest on the part of Congress to inject itself into the work of America’s diplomats. Recently, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led a letter to President Joe Biden asserting that a return to the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be subject to congressional review under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). While Congress undoubtedly has a role to play in ensuring Iran complies with its commitments under the JCPOA, it should not prevent the United States from living up to its international commitments.
INARA is a complex piece of legislation that was passed by Congress with bipartisan support in 2015 prior to the conclusion of the JCPOA. It required, among other things, that any new “agreement” related to Iran’s nuclear program be transmitted to Congress for a 60-day review period in which Congress could pass a joint resolution of disapproval that would essentially prevent the deal from going into effect.
In 2015, the Obama administration submitted the JCPOA to Congress, along with required assessments and certifications, in strict compliance with INARA. Congress had its chance to review the deal – in fact, it examined the terms extensively, including hearings with administration officials and other witnesses, numerous written exchanges with the executive branch, and voluminous briefings. At the end of that process, Congress had a chance to disapprove of the JCPOA. That vote failed, and implementation of the JCPOA was successful until former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018, despite continuing Iranian compliance with its nuclear commitments.
Today, many House Republicans (and many in the Senate too) are attempting to argue that Congress must have a chance to reject any outcome of negotiations with Iran. It is a thinly veiled attempt to foil ongoing diplomacy. Because Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than it was in 2015, a mutual re-entry is not possible, McCaul argues. He rightfully recognizes that Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced (thanks to President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign). But where he gets it wrong is his presupposition that a return to the original deal is not possible, and therefore any outcome of the current negotiations with Iran would be considered a new “agreement,” thus triggering INARA’s congressional review mechanism.
In particular, his claim that “material changes in the strategic context” require that “any prospective agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran that commits the United States to action clearly constitutes a new agreement that must be transmitted to Congress for review” under INARA is incorrect. INARA’s definition of “agreement” does not turn on, nor reference, the “strategic context.” Changes in the strategic context are certainly a good reason to conduct rigorous oversight. But they do not change INARA’s definition of “agreement” or impose a requirement of re-submitting one to Congress that was already subjected to rigorous review.
Of course, if the outcome of negotiations is in fact a new “agreement,” with terms that are materially different from the commitments contained in the JCPOA, INARA’s review period will indeed be triggered. And the Biden administration has made clear it will act in compliance with INARA, including the congressional review period if a new “agreement” is reached. But thus far, the aim is not to negotiate a new deal in Vienna. Instead, the focus is on developing a roadmap back to mutual compliance with the existing terms of the JCPOA – the very same deal submitted to Congress in 2015 in compliance with INARA — to reset Iran’s nuclear program back in accordance with the original deal.
Thanks to INARA, Congress will continue to play an important oversight role when it comes to the JCPOA once the United States resumes participation. The law contains extensive reporting requirements and certifications that the administration must adhere to related to Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. It was because of these reporting requirements that the Trump administration repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance with the deal (until he unilaterally withdrew from it). If the Biden administration does come to an understanding with Iran on a path to compliance with the JCPOA, then Congress should absolutely make sure that Iran is abiding by the terms.
Unfortunately, between McCaul’s letter and other recent efforts to prevent a resuscitation of the JCPOA, it is clear that JCPOA opponents would rather undermine U.S. diplomats and our international partners and see Iran’s nuclear program completely unchecked than engage in a constructive way to address a pressing national security concern. During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) offered an amendment that would apply ex ante congressional review to the lifting of any sanctions on Iran, regardless of whether those sanctions are related to their nuclear program or not. And at the end of last month, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) introduced a measure that would go even further and prevent the Biden administration from lifting any sanction on Iran ever, regardless of whether Iranian behavior changes.
Such requirements are shocking in that they would place unprecedented restrictions on any ability by the White House to carry out diplomacy in the nation’s national security interest. What is even more shocking is that every Republican on the committee voted in favor of Stewart’s proposal. Attempts like these undercut America’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and reinforce attempts by war hawks to sabotage diplomacy writ large.
There is certainly a conversation to be had about how to best address the range of challenges Iran poses. However, it should be obvious that leaving Iran’s nuclear program unchecked — as it would be without the JCPOA — does not strengthen international security or put the United States in a negotiating position of strength. Time is not on our side when it comes to Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear weapon, and it is clearly in the U.S. national security interest to get back to compliance with the strict limits and verification measures in the JCPOA.
Instead of trying to derail the work of the diplomats, Congress should focus on ensuring Iran adheres to its commitments pursuant to the robust oversight law it passed in 2015. That’s what a functioning legislative body would do if it were interested in working in the American people’s interest instead of trying to play politics with national security.