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Congress must focus more on Biden’s Iran diplomacy, former Sen. Lieberman says

Only Congress can stop this dangerous folly, former senator writes

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a July 4 virtual meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attends a July 4 virtual meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Tehran. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In spite of Iran’s increasingly totalitarian, murderous, and anti-American behavior, the Biden administration is nevertheless trying again to negotiate a nuclear agreement with that terrorist state. It is like trying to bargain with a poisonous snake and will not end well for us.

Only Congress can stop this dangerous folly. Members of both parties need to step in and use their constitutional and statutory powers to pressure the administration not to make a deal with Iran that will seriously compromise our national security and credibility.

Returning to talks with Iran at this time is particularly offensive because of Iran’s brutal torturing, blinding, and killing of hundreds of Iranians who have been fighting for their freedom since the murder of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, by the government’s “Morality Police.” The brave protesters are not chanting for a nuclear deal with the United States. They are calling for the end of the Islamic Republic.

The freedom fighters in Iran are America’s allies. Entering into discussions with the regime now will be seen by them as our siding with their oppressors. It is the absolutely wrong place for us to be.

The same disappointment and anger will undoubtedly be felt by the Ukrainian government and people, who have lost family and friends because of weapons the Iranian regime has sent to their Russian invaders. Hundreds and eventually thousands of Ukrainian and Iranian lives are being added to the hundreds of American lives that have been ended by actions of the current regime in Iran.

What can Congress do?

In 2015, Congress gave itself the power to stop such a senseless and dangerous agreement when it passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) with overwhelming bipartisan support. Four hundred members of the House of Representatives and 98 senators voted for INARA. Now is the time for Congress to act in the national interest, and with the same bipartisanship, to use the powers given to them in INARA.

INARA requires that within five days of “reaching an agreement with Iran relating to the nuclear program of Iran,” the president must transmit the agreement to the appropriate congressional committees and leadership of Congress. Lawmakers can then review the agreement and prevent the president from suspending existing statutory sanctions against Iran.

There are rumors now that if the administration reaches a new deal with Iran, it will construe it as an “understanding,” not an “agreement,” and therefore it will argue that it has no obligation to comply with the INARA law.

If the executive branch is considering such an end run on the law, it should read it again. The language in INARA defining an “agreement” could not be more broad. It clearly covers the kind of “understanding” being discussed with Iran at the current talks in Oman. INARA defines an agreement that must be submitted to Congress as “an agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran that commits the United States to take action, or pursuant to which the United States commits or otherwise agrees to take action, regardless of the form it takes, whether a political commitment or otherwise, and regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.”

It is past time for Congress to step up its oversight of our Iran policy in general, and to focus first on what is being negotiated in Oman and what information and respect Congress will be given by the administration if an “understanding” is reached. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has only held one public hearing on Iran since President Joe Biden took office in 2021. In fact, the first all-senators briefing on Iran under the Biden administration took place only in May 2023. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has not held a single public oversight hearing solely covering U.S. policy on Iran since at least 2020.

That must change, and there are recent signs that it will. Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul‘s public letters to the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month warning about INARA compliance and requesting the acting U.S. special envoy for Iran and National Security Council coordinator for Middle East and North Africa to appear before Congress in a public hearing were important steps forward in this process. Oversight now is especially important given the concerning reports about how U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has been placed on unpaid leave following a suspension of his security clearance amid an investigation into alleged mishandling of classified information.

Another very encouraging sign was the recent letter sent by a bipartisan group of 26 senators to Biden ,urging him to concentrate on more strongly deterring Iran, instead of consenting to an ineffective agreement. The letter, which significantly was signed by seven Democratic senators who supported the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015, is a clear, preemptive statement of concern about what the Biden administration is doing with Iran in Oman. It says in part: “It is crucial for your administration to remain aligned with congressional efforts related to Iran’s nuclear program and not agree to a pact that fails to achieve our nation’s critical interests. … We urge you to restore this posture of deterrence and provide leadership to strengthen the resolve of the international community.”

Hopefully, Biden will quickly tell these senators and all of Congress exactly what is being discussed with the Iranians in Oman and promise to submit any “understanding” that may result from those discussions to Congress, as the INARA law and our national security clearly requires.

Joe Lieberman was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 and a U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013. He is chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

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