(JNS) Moderate Democrats in Congress who have not shown enthusiasm for the United States re-entering the Iran nuclear deal—officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA—may not have much leverage if an agreement is reached with Iran in recent efforts to rejoin it.
Even when the original plan was entered into under the Obama administration in 2015, it was not supported by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), among a number of Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate, though it did not drastically affect the plan as the Obama administration avoided Congress entirely.
“I think you’re going to see what you saw in 2015,” said Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The administration will be questioned or criticized by some Democrats on the Hill, but it will move forward just as in 2015, without regard to their worries.”
This avoidance is partly the result of the constitutional prerogative the president’s office has when it comes to foreign policy, as well as how the branch’s work is conducted.
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and former U.S. State Department analyst and negotiator, said that the president’s office is akin to the “Energizer Bunny” of American politics, as it keeps going and going while other branches take time off.
“A Congress goes in and out of session, [the] Supreme Court goes in and out of session, but the president never goes in and out of session,” Miller said in an interview.
In any foreign policy and national security issue, Miller said, “a willful, skillful president” more often than not overcomes objections and constraints that Congress attempts to saddle them with.
Lastly, Miller said, is that Congress usually remains divided and therefore either unwilling or unable to directly challenge a president in the details of a national security issue.
For example, he said, the controversial Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in 2002 to give the administration of President George W. Bush broad powers to conduct military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq has not been repealed for 19 years, despite many calling for it to be.
With a Democratic majority in both chambers, Democrats will be less willing to challenge their own president, and possibly create tensions and make future efforts at collaboration more difficult.
They would be especially reluctant to create conflict over the JCPOA, which Miller said has absolutely no constituency—with the exception of a handful of progressive Democrats—in favor of it. It is also not nearly as important to the Democratic Party’s agenda as domestic reforms.
“Remember one other thing: In this administration, quite rightly and understandably, there’s not a single foreign policy issue, including Iran, that’s more important to this administration than the domestic priorities the president has,” said Miller. “And returning to the JCPOA is occurring roughly the same time that the administration wants to pass the American Jobs Act, the infrastructure bill, which will go beyond the COVID stimulus package in terms of its magnitude in its potentially transformational impact on the American economy. I mean, it’s huge. It’s FDR-like.”
With the administration not wanting to roil domestic support for its policies in Congress with Democrats in Congress not wanting to embarrass the president on the international stage prior to the push to pass extensive domestic reforms, Miller believes that the re-entrance into the JCPOA is likely, though not guaranteed.
Instead of challenging the president directly, Congress will likely write letters and pass resolutions stating what it would like the president to do in either a re-entry or renegotiation of the deal. They could also pass legislation limiting the president’s waiver power to suspend certain sanctions.
However, the lack of tools to really direct the president’s hand in foreign policy does not stop Congress from trying.
In May 2015, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), giving itself the right to review any agreement reached in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, though not applying to the old JCPOA.
“[INARA] says that any new agreement with Iran should be brought to Congress,” said Abrams. “I guess the administration will argue this isn’t the new agreement, we’re going exactly and totally back to the old agreement.”
‘Debate is over the human-rights and terrorism sanctions’
The administration has been signaling its intentions to re-enter the JCPOA since it took office, and it was reported this week that progress was being made in negotiations in Vienna with the United States and Iran participating indirectly. The administration has said it is looking for “longer and stronger” terms to the agreement; the key to support in Congress lies in how the administration defines those terms.
Iran has publicly stated that it would not re-enter the deal until sanctions that were put in place by the Trump administration are lifted.
“The question is going to be which sanctions; that is clear in the statements that the administration officials have made. There were clearly some sanctions that will not be removed, which are terrorism and human-rights sanctions. There were clearly some economic sanctions that will be removed. And the debate is over the human-rights and terrorism sanctions that Iran claims—and that the Biden administration may agree—were actually economic sanctions under another heading,” explained Abrams, who most recently served as U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela and Iran in the Trump administration. “I expected this administration will want to lift those.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress, alongside former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announced this week the Maximum Pressure Act, which seeks to restrict U.S. President Joe Biden’s ability to lift sanctions placed on Iran during the Trump administration. The bill also would force Biden to submit to the Senate for ratification as a treaty any new agreement with Iran. However, with Republicans in the minority and Biden keen on negotiations, the bill is highly unlikely to pass.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on March 25 outlining the pillars on what both parties agree would be a comprehensive diplomatic strategy in relation to Iran that will garner bipartisan support. The letter was drafted by Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, together with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and was signed by 41 senators from both parties.
While praising the administration’s engagement with Congress on the issue so far, it reiterated that U.S. policy towards Iran should be to prevent it from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon, address Iran’s belligerent behavior in the region and emphasize the need to push for the release of American prisoners. They include Iranian-Americans Baquer Namazi, 84; Siamak Namazi, 49; Morad Tahbaz, in his late 60s; and Emad Shargi, 56.
During the 2015 JCPOA negotiations, Abrams said, the Obama administration did not insist on prisoners being released prior to agreeing to the deal.
Abrams said he thinks the Biden administration is going to attempt to free the Americans to avoid criticism. “… I think the hostage question is … an important one and … a difficult one for the administration in the sense that I hope they recognize that going back to the JCPOA without freeing the hostages, just as in 2015, would be a terrible step to take,” he said. “It would really be abandoning them.”