Congress Will Make It Tough for Biden on Iran
Biden’s nominees will face trouble in the Senate unless they prove they learned the lessons of the failed 2015 nuclear agreement.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his intent to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. That would be a terrible mistake because the United States should never reenter the flawed agreement. While many of my colleagues in the U.S. Congress and I would support diplomatic efforts to end the United States’ decades-long standoff with the Iranian regime, a new and significantly improved agreement must be negotiated for us to consider supporting it.
The original Iran deal, after all, was a gift to the Iranian regime—a regime that supports terrorist organizations around the world, harbors al Qaeda, and has its supporters chant “death to America and Israel.” The agreement lifted major sanctions on Tehran while only partially restricting its nuclear activities—and those restrictions begin expiring in 2025. The deal also failed to address the regime’s ongoing development of ballistic missiles, support for terrorism against U.S. partners, attacks on U.S. personnel, and sheltering of al Qaeda operatives—all activities that have been widely reported in the press. It certainly did not advance U.S. national security objectives.
For these reasons, many of my colleagues and I strongly supported former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal in 2018, after negotiations to fix the deal’s many flaws went nowhere. It would make no sense to reenter the same problematic deal, which will begin expiring in only four years. Further, we should not grant sanctions relief to a regime that continues to support attacks on U.S. facilities and terrorist activities against our partners.
Still, even while Trump pursued a maximum pressure campaign against Iran and responded to the killing of a U.S. citizen by taking out its top terrorist operative, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ notorious Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, he always held out the possibility of a deal that “makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
To that end, any new U.S. agreement with Iran must adhere to four main principles.
First, a new deal with Tehran should be comprehensive. It must address the regime’s funding of terrorist proxies, curtail its ballistic missile program, and close off every avenue to a nuclear weapons capability.
Second, a deal must be inclusive. Any negotiation should strongly take account of the views and concerns of Israel and our Arab partners, and a U.S. signature should be contingent on their support. Our partners have the most to lose in a bad deal and can offer substantial legitimacy to a good one. They should not be sidestepped as they were during the Obama administration, and we should never make a deal with Iran that further endangers them, as the original Iran deal did.
Third, a resolution should be permanent. There cannot be sunset provisions that would ultimately allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapons capability, as is the case in the current deal, or which will indefinitely defer discussions of its terrorist activities.
Fourth, the implementation of any deal must be transparent, allowing for regular and unconditional inspections of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as requiring Iran to reveal all of its prior nuclear activities.
While Iran’s continued aggression makes a durable and far-reaching resolution unlikely, I urge the Biden administration to lay the groundwork now so that a new deal has the foundation to succeed if and when Tehran is ready. This means maintaining our leverage with Iran through the current sanctions regime and a strong U.S. military posture in the region—pressure that can be relieved only with real, demonstrable changes in Iranian behavior. It also means opening discussions with our European allies and regional partners to coordinate priorities for a new deal.
Biden should also reconsider his nomination to senior national security positions of former Obama administration officials who were directly involved in negotiating the original Iran deal, as well as those who promoted it. Unless these nominees can demonstrate that they have learned from their previous mistakes, their confirmation process in the Senate will be difficult—and rightly so.
My colleagues and I strongly hope to avoid further conflict with Iran. The Biden administration has an opportunity to build bipartisan congressional support for a truly comprehensive, inclusive, and permanent diplomatic resolution. Biden can avoid repeating the same mistakes that were made when he was vice president. A new agreement that achieves these goals would ensure a better outcome—one that will not be subject to the next presidential or congressional elections and one that will allow the United States to focus more squarely on the challenges posed by Russia and China.
Jim Inhofe is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Twitter: @JimInhofe