Feb 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: House GOP moves to tank Biden's Iran diplomacy

Protestors in Iran burn the American flag during last week's commemoration of the 43rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Protesters in Tehran burn the American flag last week during a commemoration of Iran's Islamic revolution 43 years ago. Photo: Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Nearly 200 House Republicans have written to President Biden warning any nuclear deal made with Iran without Congress' approval "will meet the same fate" as the 2015 agreement by President Obama later abandoned by President Trump.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has been working feverishly to secure an agreement via indirect nuclear talks in Vienna, but on Wednesday, an Iranian official publicly called for Congress to pledge that the U.S. will stay in a potential deal.

  • The GOP letter — signed by most members of the party that polls say will run the House next year — bluntly rebuffs Iran's request.
  • It also complicates Biden's already-fraught efforts to revive the deal negotiated by the Obama administration and backed by the European Union and U.N. Security Council.
  • The administration sees a return to an agreement as a way of avoiding a nuclear arms race in the already volatile Middle East.

What they're saying: "We will view any agreement reached in Vienna which is not submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification as a treaty — including any and all secret agreements made with Iran directly or on the sidelines of official talks — as non-binding," the GOP lawmakers wrote to Biden.

  • The letter lays out conditions to which Iran's leaders would likely never agree.
  • The Republicans promise to oppose any agreement that lifts U.S. sanctions on Iran unless the Iranian regime has first fully dismantled all its enrichment capabilities.
  • They also want Iran to destroy its nuclear-capable missiles, halt all sponsorship of terrorism and pay "U.S. federal court judgments owed to the American victims of terrorism sponsored by the Iranian regime."

The big picture: The letter sends a clear statement to the Iranians of the GOP's determination to oppose a re-entry into the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

  • 175 House Republicans, including establishment members and hardcore Trumpists alike, signed the letter — a striking statement in itself.
  • Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) led the effort. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signed it, as did his political enemy, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
  • 33 Republican senators have taken the same position, warning in a letter this month that implementation of a nuclear deal would be "severely if not terminally hampered" if Biden did not submit to a Senate vote.
  • A State Department spokesperson told Axios: "The Biden administration is not negotiating a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA based on who is in office in Iran today or tomorrow, and we would expect the same approach from Iran."

Flashback: These messages echo a 2015 open letter to Iran led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

  • At that time, Democrats accused him of undermining the nuclear negotiations by claiming any deal not ratified by Congress could be revoked "with the stroke of a pen."

Driving the news: With the indirect talks reaching crunch time, Iran has publicly appealed to Congress to make a "political statement" committing the U.S. to the potential nuclear deal.

  • "As a matter of principle, public opinion in Iran cannot accept as a guarantee the words of a head of state, let alone the United States, due to the withdrawal of Americans from the JCPOA," Iran's foreign minister told the Financial Times.
  • The GOP's categorical refusal to entertain this request — and pledge to withdraw from any deal next time it takes the White House — could end up influencing Iranian decision-making.
  • France's foreign minister said Wednesday a decision on reviving the deal is "a matter of days" away, and it's now time for Iran to make the political decisions needed to avert a "serious crisis."

Between the lines: "Republicans are sending a pretty strong and clear message to the Iranians and to the private sector with this letter," says Richard Goldberg, a former top Iran official in Trump's National Security Council now serving as senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

  • "To Iran: Whatever you think Biden is agreeing to in Vienna lacks the political support in Washington to survive the next change in party control of the White House or Congress — sanctions will absolutely return," Goldberg told Axios.
  • "To the private sector: Are you really going to put your head in the lion's mouth with these same Republicans set to take back Congress in November?"

The other side: "The reality is that the JCPOA has already been reviewed and voted on in Congress. What the administration is negotiating in Vienna is a pathway back to the original deal, not a new one," Ali Vaez, Iran project director at Crisis Group, told Axios.

  • "All the political posturing notwithstanding, there is practically nothing that Congress can do to stop that from happening," he added.
  • "This letter shows that the Republicans are either incapable or unwilling to learn from the failures of Trump’s maximalist 12 demands that have now brought Iran closer than ever to the verge of nuclear weapons."

The bottom line: The U.S. has for years been seeking to avoid the binary choice between military action and Iran having nuclear capacity.

  • That, however, is the direction the Biden administration is headed if it fails to secure a deal.

Go deeper: Read the letter.

Go deeper