iranintl.com – Biden Administration officials have indicated they could be only weeks away from returning to a JCPOA-like deal with Iran. That return would immediately provide the Iranian regime with access to around $90 billion in foreign exchange reserves currently frozen by U.S. sanctions, and would permit Iran to freely export oil and petrochemical products, allowing the regime to generate a minimum of an additional $50 billion in revenue annually. The U.S. Congress will only have a short window to act to prevent Iran from receiving this enormous financial windfall, and for Republicans to try to hold Democrats in Congress accountable for any support of this scheme.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) passed by Congress in 2015 during JCPOA negotiations mandates that Congress shall have the opportunity to review any agreement reached by the Executive Branch relating to Iran’s nuclear program and creates a process for Congress to approve or disapprove of any deal. However, the Biden Administration is hoping to circumvent Congressional review altogether by rebranding their negotiations as seeking “a return to compliance” with the original JCPOA, rather than admitting that current negotiations will result in a new deal that explicitly requires Congressional review.
The headwinds against Republicans blocking the deal get stiffer from there. Even if Biden changes course and submits the text of the deal to Congress, Democrats in control of both the Senate and House of Representatives can block any review vote of the new deal simply by not giving the resolutions of approval or disapproval of the nuclear deal any opportunity for a vote. Considering how significant these negotiations are to the future of the Middle East, and indeed for global security, preventing Members of Congress from weighing in on the deal would be a great disservice to the American people, but Democratic leadership may think that choice more expedient than subjecting vulnerable members to a controversial vote.
However, INARA has a separate process that can be used to determine Congressional support for current negotiations. A procedure was included in INARA to allow Congress to snap back all sanctions on Iran and block future sanctions relief if the deal wasn’t working out as intended. That process is completely independent on the current negotiations with Iran and could be initiated today. INARA grants this sensitive power to the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, who can force votes on sanctions relief for Iran, regardless of which party is in power of either chamber.
The window to force floor votes through this process is open from June 24-August 23, and again from September 22-November 21 if a deal has not been reached by then. However, Congress typically recesses for most of the month of August – leaving July as the only likely time that such a process could be undertaken. This vote would put all Members of Congress on-record whether they support giving sanctions relief to Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. If the vote passes by a simple majority in the House or Senate, it would automatically be eligible for consideration by the other chamber, potentially setting up a situation where President Biden is forced to issue a veto if he wishes to proceed with negotiations with Iran.
Here’s the grainy details of how this path works: Section 135(e) of INARA created an expedited and privileged legislative procedure for restoring sanctions on Iran. Normally, the President of the United States must submit a certification to Congress every 90 days that Iran (i) is transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing the JCPOA, (ii) has not committed a material breach with the JCPOA or cured that breach, (iii) has not taken actions that could advance its nuclear weapons program; and (iiii) that sanctions relief is deemed “appropriate and proportionate” to actions taken by Iran or vital to U.S. national security interests.
In the event that certification is no longer given by the President in each 90-day window, the snapback process is open for 60 days. The last certification was sent to Congress by President Donald Trump in July 2017. In October 2017, Trump announced that he would not make the certification to Congress citing condition (iiii), expressing that sanctions relief was no longer “appropriate and proportionate”. Additionally, as of May 2019, Iran continues to violate conditions (i) and (ii). Accordingly, every 90 days since October 13, 2017, there has been a 60-day window for Congressional majority and minority leaders to force a vote to return all statutory sanctions on Iran and block any waiver, suspension, reduction, or other sanctions relief. The current window opened on June 24, 2021.
This snapback process is triggered by the majority or minority leader submitting legislation returning sanctions on Iran. If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or House Foreign Affairs Committee do not act on that legislation within 10 days, it is automatically discharged to the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives, which a vote on that legislation can occur within days. Unlike most normal legislation, there are no possible points of order that can be made against the bill – guaranteeing a simple up-or-down vote. In the Senate, bills are typically subject to a 60-vote threshold to bypass the filibuster. However, INARA circumvents this process, making it passable at a 51-vote threshold.
What does this all mean? First, lawmakers have the legislative and procedural tools available to exercise oversight over Biden’s negotiations with Iran. Second, while the Iranian negotiators are demanding that the U.S. guarantee it will not withdraw from a deal again, Congress is sending the exact opposite message. Negotiators in Vienna would be wise to realize that President Joe Biden and Envoy Rob Malley are not the only Americans they must satisfy to reach a lasting deal – they must consider and address the concerns of Republicans in Congress as well, and they ignore them at their peril.
The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Iran InternationalIra