Could the Republicans Stall a Nuclear Deal With Iran?


A move by US congressional lawmakers this past week to investigate the possible mishandling of classified information by Robert Malley, former US special envoy on Iran,  threatens to delay a nuclear deal with Iran. To dodge a congressional subpoena, the US State Department said it would brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee in late July. The brief will remain classified, and it raises the option for  Congress to probe further into how the Biden administration is handling the Iran file.

Republican representative Michael McCaul  alleges that Malley, who took over the Iran nuclear file  in January 2021, made unlawful contacts. According to the Iranian state-backed paper Tehran Times, Malley was suspended for holding secret talks with   Amir Saeed Iravani in New York, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN.

US Secretary of State  Antony Blinken supports Malley’s actions. But the envoy’s dismissal makes it hard to predict the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Blinken has said that  the Trump administration’s decision to pull the  United States out of the deal in 2018 was a “terrible mistake.” But he claims that US officials are not currently talking about an agreement with their Iranian counterparts .

If  the Republicans, who form  the majority in the House of Representatives, stall further progress in the nuclear talks, it will inflict a blow on President Joe Biden’s re-election bid in November 2024, especially if his administration fails to cap Iran’s uranium enrichment activities which are bringing the country closer to the nuclear threshold. 

Last year, US  Republican senators said they would not support a nuclear deal unless it “completely blocks” Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. This past May, a Republican Study Committee introduced bills to demand that any deal with Iran be labeled as a “treaty” that must  then require  congressional approval.

Partisan politics enables the Republicans  to also invoke the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015, which calls on the US administration to submit any new agreement with Iran to the Senate for a 30-day review. The  INARA stipulates that even an informal arrangement with Iran should undergo a congressional review. According to Republican lawmakers, given that  Iran is an adversary state and sponsor of terrorism,  compliance with the act is extremely crucial. 

Washington says it is working on a range of options to push back the advancement of Iran’s enrichment program, but it insists that diplomacy is the best way forward. If reviving  the nuclear deal entails a return to the JCPOA, which Iran wants but  Republican lawmakers oppose, and the release of Iran’s frozen assets abroad, Washington would then have to appeal to both Iran and the Republicans. To entice the Iranian side, the US administration  gave Iraq the greenlight to release US $2.76 billion in debt to Iran in June, but  it banned 14 Iraqi banks over their dollar transactions with Iran.

Tehran Times claims that the released funds are the result of a trilateral mechanism agreed upon between Iran, Iraq and the  United States to facilitate financial transfers to Tehran. Iran also demands the release of other frozen funds abroad including  the $7 billion in Iranian oil revenues held by South Korea. The funds could be transferred to Iran’s neighboring countries to help facilitate humanitarian goals including covering  the expenses of  Iranian pilgrims  traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj.

In return,  Iran could engage in a prisoner swap with the  United States, and cap its nuclear enrichment program to no more than 60% purity.  Back in April, reports even surfaced that Iran and the  United States could indeed proceed to accept a freeze-for-freeze deal to halt sanctions in return for Iran halting parts of its uranium enrichment activities.

Republicans criticize this sort of transaction as a violation of the sanctions regime, and argue that any financial sanctions relief offered to Iran could be used to advance it nuclear program. It appears in fact that even a temporary or informal deal that would discourage enrichment over 60% purity,  but offers sanctions relief to Iran, could be deemed as threatening by the majority of  Republicans in the US House of Representatives. Blinken admits that at this stage, Iran is not able or willing to take a deal.

In the Senate, the Biden team is betting on the fact  that the Republicans  may lack sufficient votes to block a deal with Iran.  The team argues that Senate oversight is not required if the JCPOA, which was  concluded back in 2015,  was to be revived. But with Senate Democrats facing tough elections next year that could see them lose control of the body to the  Republicans, a solid nuclear deal with Iran seems extremely unlikely.

Editorial Team