ANALYSIS — It’s 2022, but there’s a strong feeling of 2015 déjà vu growing in the halls of Congress.
Back in 2015, Republican and Democratic lawmakers were increasingly worried about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. So they passed a law giving themselves the authority to review and vote on any multinational agreement dealing with Tehran’s atomic program.
The ensuing classified briefings, public hearings, and numerous whip-counting efforts of moderate Democrats consumed Washington’s national security policymaking community that summer and fall — even though the result was never really in doubt after then-President Barack Obama announced in July of that year that a deal had been struck in Vienna between six world powers and Iran.
That original agreement — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — traded the easing of multinational sanctions on Iran for that country’s commitment to roll back its nuclear development activities and comply with strict, verifiable limitations on its nuclear program for 10-25 years.
And now that the Biden administration is close to striking a follow-on agreement to the original JCPOA, which President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the United States from while reimposing U.S. sanctions, the Iran policy lobbying machinery is cranking back into action around Washington — especially on Capitol Hill.
Many of the most outspoken voices for and against a nuclear agreement with Iran remain the same, on and off the Hill. And there’s even a strong prospect that narrow bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate will vote down the expected nuclear agreement, assuming it’s submitted for their review by the Biden administration. Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, any revised deal must be submitted for congressional review if it differs significantly from the original accord.
But just like in 2015, the ending really isn’t in doubt on Capitol Hill.
That’s because in order to prevent the expected deal from being implemented by the administration, veto-proof majorities in each chamber would be needed to vote against it. But President Joe Biden would almost certainly have the vast majority of Democrats on his side in support of an altered pact.
'Longer and stronger'
That all, of course, presumes Biden’s team of negotiators in Vienna are able to resolve the final outstanding issues with Tehran, which reportedly are now centered on whether the Biden administration will lift the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation imposed by the Trump administration on Iran’s most powerful military branch, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Also participating in the negotiations — same as the last time during the Obama administration — are Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia.
Republicans maintain that the original 2015 agreement was a weak deal that failed to permanently remove the possibility that Iran one day would develop a nuclear weapon after most restrictions imposed by the 2015 accord had expired. They also warned that the deal did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for regional extremist groups.
GOP members are virtually united in opposing any revised nuclear agreement reached that isn’t “longer and stronger” than the original accord. Last month, 49 of the 50 Senate Republicans signed a joint statement that essentially implied if Biden enters into a deal they feel is too weak, it will meet the same fate as the 2015 accord. The unstated implication is the next time a Republican is elected president, he or she will unilaterally withdraw from the pact — just as Trump did.
“We strongly urge the administration, our Democrat colleagues, and the international community to learn the lessons of the very recent past,” the statement said. “A major agreement that does not have strong bipartisan support in Congress will not survive.”
Since the United States withdrew from the initial nuclear deal and reimposed and increased sanctions on Iran, Tehran has steadily broken its own commitments under the deal, including enriching uranium to higher and higher degrees.
Iran has shortened “the breakout time” needed to build a nuclear bomb from one year while it was in compliance with the 2015 accord to just weeks today. In short, Iran is closer today than at any other point to having the necessary materials and expertise to build a nuclear weapon.
“There simply is no good alternative to reentering the Iran nuclear deal. Trump tried it,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said in a Senate floor speech last week. “My [Republican] colleagues should be honest with the American people that these failed policies have led Iran closer to a nuclear weapon. These are the life-and-death stakes. Doubling down on the failed policies of Trump and expecting a different result in Iran is the definition of insanity.”
The feeling of déjà vu on Capitol Hill is compounded by the apparent refusal of one group involved in the debate to apply lessons learned over the last seven years of Iran policy or to grapple with how much events in the Middle East and around the world have altered the U.S. national security calculus.
The reality is that the international security climate has worsened significantly since the 2013-2015 period, when Iran was effectively treated by Washington as the United States’ most pressing global concern.
Russia’s war on Ukraine and its implications for NATO member countries’ security, as well as worsening strategic tensions with China, have displaced Iran in consuming the lion’s share of bandwidth for the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community.
Outside of a relatively small but vocal group of conservatives bent on achieving regime change in Iran, not many hawks in Washington are calling for devoting more U.S. troops and military resources to the Middle East, particularly as that would divert from efforts to focus on European defense and the Asia-Pacific region.
Additionally, Israel — whose security concerns vis-a-vis Iran were treated as paramount by Republicans and many Democrats during the last nuclear deal debate — is no longer considered nearly as strategically isolated in the Middle East as it was in 2015. The Abraham Accords facilitated by the Trump administration have ushered in a new period of security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which has the potential to be expanded to include Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states also worried about Iranian belligerence.
In fact, there is a growing list of former Israeli military and security officials who have come out in favor of the 2015 nuclear agreement as being better for Israel’s security than no deal at all.
“What happened in 2018 was a tragedy. It was an unforgivable strategy, the fact that Israel pushed the United States to withdrew from the agreement ten years early,” said Tamir Pardo, who led Mossad from 2011-2016, in a statement circulated by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group.
But those significantly altered geopolitical realities aren’t usually brought up in Republicans’ criticisms of Biden’s nuclear diplomacy efforts, nor by the small number of Democrats who also oppose entering into another version of the JCPOA.
What’s more, there is little acknowledgement by Republicans that their preferred strategy of imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran through harsh sanctions has failed to restrain Tehran in any meaningful way.
Shortly after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a high-profile May 2018 speech confidently proclaimed: “We will also ensure Iran has no path to a nuclear weapon — not now, not ever.” Pompeo then laid out a long list of demands for the Iranian regime to comply with if it wanted to see sanctions relief. None of those demands have been met.
The Trump administration’s approach, unanimously backed by Republicans when it was first imposed four years ago, has not met any of its stated strategic objectives in terms of stopping Iran’s nuclear and missile work or its support for terrorist groups. The unilateral U.S. sanctions have left the Iranian government with fewer financial resources. But most of the economic impacts have been felt by the Iranian people as Tehran has chosen, like other pariah authoritarian governments in Syria and North Korea, to focus limited resources on its military.
“The Iran deal is not controversial in the way it was in the summer of 2015. And the world and American voters have moved on in a lot of ways. The jury came back on the two approaches to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program,” said Dylan Williams, the chief lobbyist of J Street. “Trump’s approach of breaking the deal and imposing maximum pressure through sanctions led to a surge in Iranian nuclear activity, the rapid development of its ballistic missile program, and increased Iranian support for acts of terror, including missile attacks against U.S. troops. The historical record is so noncontroversial on this.”
Nor do opponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran really have much of an alternative to offer other than a continuation of the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign.
'Iran’s terrorism acts'
In interviews in recent days with more than a half-dozen Republican and Democrats who oppose a return to the JCPOA, none of the lawmakers articulated — despite repeated questioning — a different course of action that hadn’t already been tried that might stand a chance of altering Iran’s current trajectory of becoming a breakout nuclear weapons state.
Rather, they offered a laundry list of criticisms of the 2015 agreement as well as disgust at the notion that the Iranian regime would enjoy sanctions relief while continuing to support groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis.
Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee, said he wasn’t sure what was feasible to achieve with Iran, but he said the United States would likely have to devote more military resources to the issue.
“I think we’re going to have to reapply sanctions. We’re going to have to work with our partners and allies and see what is doable,” Young said. “I suspect we’re going to have to increase and heighten our military readiness in the region and identify how to get more leverage at the negotiating table.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he still wanted to see Iran accept one massive agreement that also included its missile program and support for terrorism. He did not offer a strategy for how Tehran might be persuaded to accept that when it never has before, or agree that Iran’s potential to acquire a nuclear weapon should be prioritized over its support for extremist groups.
“You have to deal with Iran’s terrorism acts. You can’t separate the nuclear and the terrorist acts and assume they’re different. You can’t isolate the missile technology to deliver a nuclear warhead and say, ‘You can create a missile,’” Lankford said. “You’ve got to be able to deal with the other things. … It all has to work together.”
And Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., at a press conference called by a group of moderate House Democrats who are unhappy with the direction of Biden’s nuclear diplomacy, suggested the United States do more to militarily threaten Iran in an attempt to persuade officials in Tehran to comply with U.S. demands.
“I do believe that it’s time that those consequences be made abundantly clear,” Phillips said. “It is time for that [NATO] alliance … to coalesce around severe well-articulated consequences that will not be ignored should Iran proceed.”