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Washington Gears Up for a Fight on JCPOA

By Ali Ahmadi

With news that a conclusion to the Vienna talks may be either imminent or mere weeks away, the debate over nuclear diplomacy with Iran will shift to Washington. Congressional opponents of the agreement will doubtless endeavor to block US re-participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which the US exited in 2018. While any bill to block implementation would require passage through both chambers of Congress, the real test would be whether a bill disapproving of the JCPOA can overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

With the Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate, any motion of disapproval can be blocked from a floor vote by leadership. Of course, it should be considered that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) voted against the agreement in 2015. Additionally, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (INARA) passed to establish a clear vetting process for the JCPOA, streamlining Congressional consideration for any nuclear agreement with Iran. 

The INARA Process

Much of the INARA process does not meaningfully alter the terms of the debate. For example, it requires that the administration provide material pertaining to the negotiated outcome and allows for a one-month period of consideration before major sanctions relief commitments are carried out. Both requirements would have likely been pressed upon the Biden administration by political circumstances. If triggered, however, INARA’s formal Congressional review process could result in an up-or-down vote. Whether US reentry into the JCPOA would require another INARA review process is itself controversial as the law was not drafted with the expectation of a US withdrawal and reentry. There is thus a fair amount of confusion over its application in this context. The White House has not taken an explicit position on the topic while Republicans insist such a review process and a vote are necessary by law. 

Even analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) could not provide a clear answer. If no changes have been made to the JCPOA’s text and no related arrangements have been agreed upon, then the review would not be required. The CRS analysis states that the President could reasonably argue that even an amended version of the agreement would only trigger INARA’s “amendment responsibilities”, which only require the relevant Congressional committees be apprised of the situation. Even that, the CRS states, could “arguably” result in a review process albeit with fewer restrictions for the administration. 

At the same time, one could also argue that a stronger claim for the necessity of the INARA process can be made if issues not contained in the original agreement are addressed. A deal forged in Vienna would likely have to account for both Iran’s more advanced centrifuges and some of Trump’s non-nuclear sanctions against major Iranian economic institutions. While such an arrangement would be a roadmap for re-compliance with the JCPOA (and be declared as such by the JCPOA’s Joint Commission), it could also be interpreted as a separate ‘agreement’ under INARA’s definition and trigger the review process. The CRS does not address this possibility—despite it being the most likely outcome of the Vienna negotiations.

Senators to Watch

If the latter interpretation wins out, the Democrats may be forced into a vote on the matter. Even if it does not, many hesitant Democrats may insist on an up-or-down vote nonetheless—as they have in the past. When the deal was previously undergoing the INARA process in 2015, it outperformed most expectations. Even with the Senate in Republican hands, the GOP won only four Democratic backers and failed to overcome a filibuster, making an Obama veto unnecessary. 

This time around, there may be greater obstacles considering the key positions of Democratic senators who oppose or are critical of the agreement. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York was already the Democratic Whip and has since become the Senate Majority Leader. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, arguably the most aggressive opponent of the JCPOA in the Senate, was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though he had temporarily stepped down from that position due to corruption allegations; he is now the Chairman of the committee. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland took Menendez’s role on the committee during that period and remains a top Democrat on the committee. 

The only Democratic Senator opposed to the JCPOA who is neither a caucus leader nor from a solidly blue state was Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. While Senator Menendez has expressed his opposition to the revival of the JCPOA, Senators like Schumer have not taken a clear position. Nonetheless, it would seem likely that their position has not changed. In addition, Senator Manchin’s partner in obstructing much of the Democratic agenda this year, Senator Kirsten Sinema of Arizona, voted against the JCPOA as a member of the House. Importantly, there are a number of other Democratic Senators who only endorsed the JCPOA after weeks of lobbying by the Obama administration and with many reservations. 

For example, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania finally endorsed the deal in 2015 in an unusual 17-page paper outlining his many discomforts with its provisions that included over a page of citations and an entire section on Israel’s interests. Senator Chris Coons, Biden’s fellow Delawarian, was one of the last Senators to endorse the agreement and also cited significant misgivings. Although he tepidly supported the US in maintaining its commitments during statements and speeches one year later, he recently stated that the US should only rejoin the JCPOA if Iran is ready to provide additional concessions on a range of issues. Despite the American Jewish community’s overwhelming support of the JCPOA, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey’s endorsement also went down to the wire due to pushback from some Jewish constituents that resulted in a public fallout with an influential rabbi. Senator Bennet of Colorado, facing a stiff reelection battle, was also a late supporter.

Ultimately, all but four Democrats supported the deal. Key to this victory was Obama’s strong approval ratings and his historic popularity among Democratic constituents. America’s partisan division and Obama’s transcendent position among Democrats made defeating a core foreign policy achievement for his administration a high-risk proposition. That was clearly key to winning the hesitant endorsement of hawkish Democrats and the choice of powerful Democratic opponents of the Iran deal not to actively push their colleagues against it. 

President Biden does not possess the strong approval nor the high political capital among rank-and-file voters in his party. On top of that, his party faces an election cycle this fall. If a vote occurs, the administration will likely have a more difficult time navigating the political challenges. It is worth mentioning that, as in 2015, the deal is popular with voters—including nearly 40% of Republican voters. 

In Washington, however, foreign policy is more of an elites’ discourse and seldom affects electoral outcomes. It would seem unlikely, provided the high threshold of votes required to overcome a veto, that Republicans manage to block implementation. Still, the prospect of an arduous battle and the necessity of a veto could further undermine Biden’s position and the likelihood of future negotiations with Iran or other adversaries.

Ali Ahmadi (@AliAhmadi_Iran) is an External Research Fellow at Vocal Europe and an Analyst at Gulf State Analytics. He studies geoeconomics and U.S. foreign policy.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor