As the fourth round of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna concluded, the Biden administration is now facing challenges in the US Congress regarding the future of the Iranian nuclear deal and the concessions it is likely to make to entice Tehran to recomply with its nuclear obligations or make amendments to the existing deal. It is not easy going for President Joe Biden as he is in quite a predicament, with the Republicans as well as some Democrats expressing their dissatisfaction and scepticism over making concessions, such as lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran by the former Trump administration.
Republican senators have repeatedly argued that the Trump-era sanctions provided Washington with great leverage against Iran and the Biden administration should not succumb to Iranian pressure as long as Tehran does not mend its ways. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe recently said that returning to the Iranian nuclear deal is extremely dangerous as Iran would be given “substantial sanctions relief in exchange for nuclear enrichment limits that expire in four years” and Iran would use the “sanctions relief to fund terrorist groups, including those that continue to target American personnel for murder.” The Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Robert Menendez has already expressed his concerns over sanctions relief and questioned why Washington would undertake such a course of action when Iran has not adjusted its behaviour. Menendez and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham along with 41 other senators have written a letter calling for a broader Iran nuclear deal and it mentions “a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to the natural security interests of the US and its allies and partners.” Senators like Menendez and Graham believe that maintaining the existing sanctions are likely to restrict Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Moreover, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referring to President Biden’s Climate Advisor and former US Secretary of State John Kerry in his leaked audio tapes has prompted Republicans to call for a review of Kerry’s security clearance. This has resulted in President Biden facing further political pressure amid growing consensus against his approach towards Tehran.
President Biden remains under political pressure to seek a broader deal that adequately addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and aggressive regional behaviour; however, some Democrats have warned that insisting on broader demands will diminish Washington’s chances to revive the nuclear deal. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has said that he supports a stronger deal with Iran, “but that only happens after we get back into the JCPOA” hinting that demanding a broader deal might not be conducive to reviving the nuclear deal.
Several senators believe that providing sanctions relief to Iranian institutions, such as Iran’s Central Bank will indicate softness towards Iran’s violations of international law, however, some degree of relief at this point seems critical to reviving the nuclear deal. The Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act of 2021 introduced by the Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty if passed will permit the congressional review of actions to waive or terminate sanctions imposed on Iran and this act has attracted the support of other senators such as Roy Blunt, reflecting growing scepticism against Biden’s approach towards Iran. Blunt, who is also a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has said that “easing sanctions on the world’s number-one state sponsor of terrorism would be a dangerous mistake.” Against the backdrop of differences in Congress regarding the Vienna talks and the progress made, the Biden administration is facing two key challenges: building consensus in Congress in relation to any potential sanctions relief and limiting Iran’s regional aggression which is threatening the security of US allies.
Considering the current political climate in Washington, the Republicans as well as some Democrats will continue to criticize Biden’s approach towards Iran, particularly his plans to possibly lift sanctions on Tehran. For President Biden, reviving the Iranian nuclear deal is an election promise which must be met at any cost, however, the concessions he is willing to make will lead to a head on clash with the Republican Party and with some segments inside his own party, leading to more divisions and turmoil in Washington.