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Congress should reclaim its say on Iran policy

Iran is showing little willingness to reestablish the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Michael Gruber/The Associated Press
A national flag of Iran waves in front of the building of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Austria.

The Biden administration’s 16-month-long effort to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has failed. But, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley showed no willingness to pivot to a realistic containment strategy. The conditions are ripe for Congress to take the lead and set a new direction. 

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agrees, and recently pledged to draft new legislation that would lay out a replacement Iran policy. To reassert Congress’ role in setting Iran policy, Menendez does not need to start from scratch. One avenue Congress should consider is to modernize and strengthen the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) which originally provided a tool for Congressional oversight of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Congress passed INARA in 2015 to guarantee its ability to review and vote on any nuclear agreement reached with Iran. INARA remains the only mechanism that ensures Congress has a say on Iran negotiations since the Biden administration — unlike the Trump administration — has refused to submit any deal it reaches to the Senate as a treaty. But here’s the issue: That law was written with an eye to the circumstances surrounding negotiations with Iran in 2015. INARA was already weak and is now becoming increasingly outdated. 

Here are four suggestions to update and strengthen the law. 

First, INARA was drafted in a short-sighted manner. While it normally required a 30-day period for congressional review of any nuclear deal with Iran, it sought to protect against the possibility that then-President Obama would circumvent that process over the August 2015 recess by temporarily extending the review period to 60 days. That protection against a recess submission lapsed nearly seven years ago. Congress should either extend the 60-day review period permanently or at least ensure that it applies to all future extended recess periods. 

For over a year, the Biden State Department deflected whether it would even abide by INARA, arguing to government lawyers that it was merely “re-implementing” a deal that had already been submitted to Congress. After more than a year of congressional pressure, Malley finally pledged to the Senate last month that the administration would submit the current deal to Congress. But Congress should not predicate its oversight rights for such an important matter on the whims of unelected officials. Congress must permanently close any possibility of abuse by clarifying the submission requirements apply regardless of Congress’ previous review of the JCPOA. 

Third, during the drafting of INARA, President Obama’s team forced Congress to neuter the legislation under the threat of a presidential veto. Accordingly, INARA was overly deferential to the executive branch to determine what kind of deal would be permissible to negotiate in the first place. The revised legislation resulted in the executive branch only needing to secure the support of 34 senators to greenlight a deal, instead of the 67 required for a treaty. At a minimum, INARA should be amended so a majority vote is required to proceed with a new Iran agreement, as was originally envisioned by Congress before President Obama’s veto threat. 

Finally, since any deal with Iran would require the waiving of congressionally imposed sanctions, Congress should set the parameters for an acceptable deal up front. This would enable Congress to take some responsibility for setting Iran policy. The Iranian regime takes advantage of the policy swings in new administrations to stall for more time while it advances its various provocations. But most importantly, this will help strengthen U.S. negotiators’ position at future talks and help ensure that negotiators do not get so invested in sealing a deal that they cave to the Iranians at the finish line. It will also promote the permanency of any future deal. 

Congress could implement this final suggestion by adding to INARA’s certification components. Congress should require that any deal include strong restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment that do not sunset. Any agreement should require Iran to fully come clean about the previous military dimensions of its nuclear program, including being transparent with the IAEA regarding the unexplained presence of nuclear material at undeclared nuclear facilities. Congress must also condition any sanctions relief to firm financial transparency requirements on the regime to prevent aid from flowing to terrorism. 

Democrats and Republicans are certain to differ on the particular elements, but they should agree that U.S. foreign policy would be best served by Congress establishing a comprehensive and bipartisan strategy on Iran, setting firm negotiating principles and requirements and rebuilding our sanctions architecture to force Iran back to the table. It’s time for Congress to act. 

Gabriel Noronha is a fellow with JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy and previously served as the Special Advisor for Iran at the Department of State. 

Tags Barack Obama Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015 Iran nuclear deal JCPOA Joe Biden Obama Politics of the United States Robert Malley Robert Menendez

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