Lawmakers skeptical of Biden effort to resurrect Iran nuclear deal

The Biden administration's efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal is facing growing skepticism in Congress from both Democrats and Republicans.

Lawmakers in both parties say they have been left largely in the dark about what a new agreement with Iran might look like, and they fear it will be significantly weaker than the deal former President Obama cut in 2015 because the United States has lost time and leverage.

There are also doubts whether it is currently a good time to negotiate a new agreement when U.S. relations with Russia and China, two signatories to the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are at a multiyear low.

There are concerns that a new deal could wind up steering billions of dollars to Russia as it would allow the country's president, Vladimir Putin, to continue doing nuclear energy business with Iran.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he doesn't know enough about the details of the emerging deal to say whether it will be strong enough for him to support.

He was one of four Democrats who voted against the first agreement in 2015, along with Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

"There's been a little bit of insight as to how things are going but there's no bigger picture insight," Menendez told The Hill Thursday. "I don't know what the deal is."

"It's hard to judge. If Iran is going to roll back its nuclear program, if it's finally going to come clean on its efforts to achieve nuclear weapons and give access to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] to sites that they've been asking and demanding for and haven't gotten to, if Iran is going to constrain its missile program ... those are good things," he said.

But Menendez said if Iran is merely asked to delay the development of its nuclear weapons program, it likely won't be good enough.

"If what we may have - and I don't know what we may have - is just a rolling back of time, you can't roll back knowledge," he said of the advances Iran has made since 2018.

The country resumed its nuclear program after former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement.

"If all you're going to get is a limited period of time before breakout, that doesn't deal with all the other challenges of a nuclear weapon and certainly of Iran's malign activity," he said. "If somehow it gives relief to Iran and if somehow Russia gets any benefit from it, obviously that would be a problem."

Menendez received a classified briefing from the administration Thursday afternoon on the latest developments in the nuclear talks but declined to comment on the discussion.

"There's still a lot unknown," he said.

Cardin, the second most senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump made a mistake by pulling out of the Iran deal four years ago.

He acknowledged that the deteriorating relationship with Russia and China poses obstacles to negotiating a new deal and that it might be better to wait in hopes of crafting a stronger agreement later.

The Maryland senator said Russia's pariah status in the international community "changes the dynamics of the talks."

"We know the dynamics among the partners are dicey at best," he said. "We knew our relationship with China has changed. Our relationship with Russia has changed."

He said waiting to renegotiate the deal "may be the best strategy" but he wants to talk to the administration about it.

"I'm not necessarily for rushing into an agreement," he said. "I still believe we should have a longer agreement," Cardin said, referring to the terms of the 2015 deal that required Iran to reduce its centrifuges for a period of only 10 years.

Marshall Wittmann, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told The Hill: "We're deeply concerned about the direction of negotiations based on reports."

"Fueling Iran's terrorist aggression with a massive cash windfall in exchange for temporary nuclear limits would make the world far more dangerous. Congress must conduct a rigorous review of any agreement," he said.

A State Department spokesman said the administration will be careful to ensure a new deal complies with Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which provides for executive branch and congressional review.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimates the deal would allow Russia to preserve billions of dollars in trade with Iran by allowing its cooperation on civil nuclear power programs to continue.

He told The Hill that Russia would receive about $20 billion for building Iran's Bushehr 2 and Bushehr 3 nuclear power plants.

Senior Biden administration officials, including Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and Africa, heard complaints during a phone call last weekend from a group of House Democrats who felt the administration hasn't given them enough information about the talks.

Republicans say Russia is certain to reap significant economic benefits from continued nuclear trade with Iran under a new deal.

"I just don't see another deal helping Iran. Any deal that puts more money into Iran's hands, any deal that allows Russia to get funding through a new JCPOA makes no sense," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Romney said a new agreement "absolutely" would steer money to Russia, despite crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe since its invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia is attached with reprocessing some of the nuclear fuel and that puts money in their pockets," he said.

The State Department spokesperson clarified the administration would not sanction Russia for participating in any activity agreed to under a new nuclear deal with Iran.

"We would of course not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA," the official said.

Forty-nine Republican senators issued a joint statement last week pledging to oppose any agreement that imposes weaker sanctions and fewer restrictions on Iran's nuclear program than the initial JCPOA.

"The nuclear limitations in this new deal appear to be significantly less restrictive than the 2015 nuclear deal, which was itself too weak, and will sharply undermine U.S. leverage to secure an actually 'longer and stronger' deal," the GOP lawmakers said.

"What is more, the deal appears likely to deepen Iran's financial and security relationship with Moscow and Beijing, including through arms sales," they said.

Sen. James Risch (Idaho), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who signed the statement, said senators from both parties have been left to guess about the emerging deal's details.

"Both Republicans and Democrats that I've talked to" are in the dark, he said, calling the lack of transparency "disgusting."

The State Department spokesperson said the president "believes that a bipartisan approach to Iran is the strongest way to safeguard U.S. interests for the long-term" and said "administration officials have reached out at all levels to members of Congress and their staff to discuss our approach to Iran."

Democrats who defend the Biden administration's talks with Iran, however, say Trump committed a terrible mistake by unilaterally pulling the United States out of the agreement. They argue that even a weaker deal than the JCPOA is needed to delay Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

"We've got one war going on and President Biden has made clear Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. The only question is, 'How do you prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon?' I think this is the best route," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"The purpose of this deal is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon so in my view the answer is yes" it's smart to strike a deal with Iran now, even while relations with Russia and China are tenuous, he said.

Van Hollen said the Foreign Relations panel received a classified briefing recently.