Why Congress must vote on a new Iran nuclear deal

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA, passed in 2015 with bipartisan support, requires any new agreement negotiated with Iran to be submitted to Congress for approval. A new deal is being negotiated in Vienna because the parties can’t rejoin an unaltered, seven-year-old agreement. The last thing President Biden wants is a new Iran deal to be put under a microscope. 

Biden promised a longer, stronger deal but probably will accept a weaker agreement. Iran is unwilling even to address its support of terrorism, human rights abuses, or ballistic missile development. And like a congressional version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” Biden will be required by INARA to certify to Congress every 90 days Iran’s compliance, transparency and verifiability.

In 2015, I briefed some of the foreign policy team of the then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the contentious debate over the constitutionality of President Obama’s Iran agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. In addition, in the years leading up to the deal, I met with former Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and his foreign policy team, who were instrumental in instituting the sanctions legislative agenda against Iran.

It is, indeed, déjà vu. The United States and Iran are reported to be in the final stages of negotiating a deal. Don’t be misled by the dance of negotiations, with each party claiming it won’t re-enter a deal unless its minimum requirements are met. When two parties want to conclude a contract and one of them is willing to give up its leverage for a deal, the result may be a foregone conclusion.

Biden said that the day he became president, he would rejoin Obama’s legacy foreign policy achievement, the JCPOA. Former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018 and imposed maximum sanctions that have helped to devastate Iran’s economy. However, during that time, Iran expanded its nuclear capabilities, making rejoining the original deal technically impossible. Iran cannot unlearn its ability to enrich uranium to 60 percent, a stone’s throw from 90 percent, nuclear-grade uranium. 

The Biden administration claims it can rejoin the original deal with no significant changes, so it does not need any new congressional oversight. However, this conflicts with INARA, which demands an up or down congressional vote if there is a new deal. Republicans in Congress are demanding the administration submit a new agreement. Iran is said to be only months away from having enough fissile material for a bomb. The original deal anticipated that Iran would need at least one year to become a threshold nuclear state. Accepting such a short window may be too high a price to pay in exchange for billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets, unimpeded global trading, unfettered access to the international banking system, and unrestrained export of Iranian oil. 

This month, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said, “As someone who has followed Iran’s nuclear ambition for the better part of three decades, I am here today to raise concerns about the current round of negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and Iran’s dangerously and rapidly escalating nuclear program that has put it on the brink of having enough material for a nuclear weapon.”  

Although Democrats have 50 Senate votes, four sitting Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), voted against the original deal. An on-the-record vote would put them in a difficult position, forcing them to defend a vote change. In a polarized America, voting your conscience may not be an option — even if you fundamentally believe this is a dangerous deal for America’s national security interests.

In addition, the constitutionality of the 2015 deal remains in question. The U.S. Constitution demanded that the JCPOA be submitted as a treaty. Article II of the Constitution says the president needs the approval of two-thirds of the Senate to make international agreements. Obama knew he did not have the votes; in fact, he did not even have most of the Senate.

Obama outmaneuvered the Republican-majority Senate knowing they could not reach the voting threshold to nix the deal; it was brilliant political subterfuge. Using the filibuster, Senate Democrats blocked disapproval of the Iran nuclear deal by a 58-42 vote. So, let’s recap: Forty-two senators were able to bind America to an agreement that should have required the votes of 66 senators for a treaty. 

How many Americans who favored an Iran nuclear agreement knew this was not a treaty or that it was an unsigned document? When I would go to Senate offices over the past six years, I was told multiple times by foreign policy staffers that when European diplomats would visit Congress, they were astonished to learn the JCPOA was an unsigned agreement and not a treaty. 

This brings us to today and the process of rejoining a significantly different Iran nuclear agreement. This matter is way too important for our long-term security interests to simply become a politicized win. Biden said that Iran would not develop a nuclear weapon on his watch. Those words may be valid, but the next president almost certainly will have to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. 

Now is the time to educate the American people about why any new agreement needs a public airing, as specified by IRARA, and should be submitted to the Senate as a treaty, as our Constitution requires.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/ Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Barack Obama Bob Menendez Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act Iran nuclear talks Joe Biden Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mark Kirk Nuclear program of Iran

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