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US Congress ‘greatest obstacle’ to reviving Iran nuclear deal: American think tank

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Democratic members of the US House of Representatives are sworn in by Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the first session of the 117th Congress on January 3, 2021. (File photo via AFP)

The US Congress poses the “greatest obstacle” for the United States to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, as lawmakers -- many of whom fierce critics of the accord-- have a “say” in the matter, according to Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

While the Barack Obama administration was negotiating the original JCPOA in 2015, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which gave Congress oversight of the deal.

“INARA essentially gave Congress veto power over the JCPOA, or any new or amended deal with Iran,” Lord wrote in an article published in The Hill. “What remains legally uncertain is, what happens if the United States and Iran both return to compliance with the original JCPOA — would that constitute a ‘new deal,’ requiring submission to Congress? Legally, it’s not clear.”

According Lord, who is director of the Middle East Security program at the CNAS, it’s hard to imagine the Joe Biden administration dodging congressional oversight on a matter of such intense political significance. 

“In May, Biden’s lead negotiator, Rob Malley, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that any deal the administration reached would be submitted to Congress under INARA, initiating the 30-day review period and potentially enabling Congress to pass a JRD (Joint Resolution of Disapproval) and kill the deal,” he said.

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Marathon talks have been held in the Austrian capital, Vienna, since April last year to revive the JCPOA. The talks were launched after Biden became president of the United States and promised to rejoin the deal and repeal former president Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran.

However, the talks have not yet led to an agreement, as a number of outstanding issues persist, including the scope of sanctions that will be removed and the need for the US to give guarantees that it will not leave the deal again. Biden, in the meantime, has been facing pressure from Republicans in Congress who urge him not to restore the JCPOA or lift any of the sanctions imposed under the so-called maximum pressure campaign.

‘JCPOA revival will be painful’

“Beyond the details of the deal being negotiated, it’s hard to imagine what lasting benefit there is for Iran in agreeing to return to a deal that has become so politicized in US politics that any hypothetical Republican successor to Biden — who is currently polling around 40 percent approval — is likely to tear it up on day one of his or her presidency,” Lord pointed out.

“But if we suspend our disbelief that the negotiating teams can succeed in overcoming doubts and disagreements, what legally must follow in Washington further complicates a return to the deal: Congress gets a say.”

“Providing that a deal is reached, and is submitted to Congress for review, would it survive? The short answer — and an evergreen one when dealing with the legislative branch — is probably, but it’s going to be painful,” he added.

The “maximum pressure campaign” policy instituted by Trump following his 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA failed to drive Iran into making more concessions, it stated. “It had every opportunity to succeed and was even abetted by chance: the COVID-19 pandemic was a force multiplier that brought Iran economically to a fever-pitch crisis.”

But through it all, the article continued, Tehran continued to advance its nuclear, ballistic missile, and drone programs. “Leaving the JCPOA may have cost us the most precious commodity: time. And now, out of time, out of options, it’s hard to see how we’re better off. Let Congress consider that,” Lord concluded in his article. 

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