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.