Virginia elections show that Biden needs a bipartisan approach to Iran

Elections have consequences. Republican victories in the Virginia governor’s race and House of Delegates, along with an unexpectedly tight gubernatorial race in New Jersey, don’t just signal a domestic political earthquake, but will likely hamper the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. If Biden wants any deal to last longer than his time in the White House, he needs to negotiate a deal with bipartisan support from the Senate that the administration will be able to ratify as a proper treaty. Otherwise, history will repeat itself and the next Republican president will pull out of Biden’s deal, just as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll We must do more to protect American Jews 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE rejected the deal Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE made with Tehran. 

Nothing is permanent in American politics. On Jan. 20, President BidenJoe BidenStudent debt: It's the interest stupid US maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion To stabilize Central America, the US must craft better incentives for trade MORE was inaugurated with slim majorities in the House and Senate, and a nearly 60 percent approval rating. Ten months later, the president’s political clout is clearly on the wane, and his approval rating is underwater. Based on the outcome of the Virginia and New Jersey races, Republicans are now expected to take control of the House and Senate in the 2022 mid-term elections and may be able to mount a successful presidential bid in 2024.

These results are a problem for the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wants Biden to guarantee that the United States will not pull out of the nuclear deal again. For the moment, Tehran is earning billions from oil sales and other foreign trade thanks to Biden’s decision not to enforce many Trump-era sanctions that remain on the books. But Khamenei wants sanctions to go away completely and stay away for good.

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Yet for comprehensive and permanent sanctions relief to succeed, it is necessary to secure the buy-in of large, bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate, since lifting sanctions once and for all will require changing the law. If sanctions relief becomes a partisan issue — as it is now — its success will ebb and flow with the political fortunes of the respective political parties.

Biden’s negotiating team will be traveling to Vienna for a meeting on Nov. 29 with representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran, the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the 2015 deal is formally known. 

The announcement of this meeting came on the heels of a joint statement by the leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, pledging that an Iranian “(r)eturn to JCPOA compliance will provide sanctions lifting with long-lasting implications for Iran’s economic growth.” Biden understands what the Iranians want, and he is determined to deliver it. But the administration cannot guarantee that sanctions relief will be long-lasting without bringing Republicans on board and concluding an agreement that would receive the 67 votes necessary to secure support for ratification in the Senate.

The Iranians have been demanding assurances that any future administration not withdraw from any deal they make with Biden. This is likely an impossible request, especially if Tehran will only accept temporary limits on its nuclear program, weak verification measures, and no restrictions at all on its ballistic missile program. Obama secured the 2015 deal by making all those concessions, yet they are also the reason that Republicans rejected the JCPOA almost unanimously, while even some Democrats refused to support it.

Rather than a treaty, the JCPOA was a political agreement, with no legally binding elements. The negotiators never even put their signatures on the document. It was the kind of deal that presidents can make and break as they see fit, so there are likely no good options for the Biden administration to provide legal guarantees that future administrations will remain in the agreement. 

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Rather than rushing back into a flawed, temporary, and politically contentious agreement, the administration should rethink its approach and work in a bipartisan manner to develop parameters of an acceptable new agreement that Republicans and Democrats could envision as a binding treaty.

Otherwise, the outcome of this week’s elections means that the rejection of the JCPOA by a future congress and administration is not just possible, but probable, unless Biden recognizes that compromise is the only viable way forward.

Mark Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.