Wednesday , 29 November 2023

Blinken denies ‘agreement’ with Iran amid talk of informal deal

Al-Monitor — Asked whether the United States is pursuing an informal arrangement with Iran, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday there is “no agreement in the offing.” 

“We continue to be willing to explore diplomatic paths,” Blinken told a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York. “Whether Iran chooses itself to take actions — or maybe better put — not to take actions that further escalate the tensions not only between us, but with other countries, we’ll see by their actions.”

More than two years after President Joe Biden came into office promising a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal with Tehran, the two countries are said to now be considering a lesser, potentially unwritten, understanding to cool tensions.

In addition to pausing its uranium enrichment at 60% purity, The New York Times reports the informal arrangement would involve Iran pledging to halt proxy attacks on American contractors in Iraq and Syria, restore some cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and refrain from sending ballistic missiles to Russia. Reportedly wedded to that are talks to release detained Americans Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz in exchange for limited access to Iranian assets frozen abroad under US sanctions.   

“The administration has insisted there is no formal deal either signed or impending, but nevertheless Washington and Tehran have taken mutual steps in the past few months to try to ratchet down tensions,” said Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“For the US, the priority seems to be more about the journey than the destination, in the sense that the priority now is mainly to lower the heat and buy time,” Rome said. 

Some observers say the administration’s careful choice of words — denying a “agreement,” but not an “understanding” or “arrangement” — may be an effort to avoid a vote in Congress, where there is little appetite for striking a deal with a country that’s providing Russia with lethal drones and cracking down on its own protesters.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), the president is required to submit any “agreement” concerning Iran’s nuclear program to Congress. Lawmakers have 30 days to review the deal, during which time they could vote against it with a joint resolution of disapproval.

They would need a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to then overturn the president’s expected veto. Republicans, who in 2015 commanded both chambers, tried to kill the deal but lacked the necessary Senate votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster on a procedural vote. 

An informal arrangement this time around — as opposed to formal re-entry into the original nuclear deal — would lower the political cost for the Biden administration, said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. 

Democrats will make noise about it, Parsi said, but “they’re going to be happy that there is not a full agreement that kicks in INARA because they have no appetite whatsoever for that fight in Congress right now.” 

There is some disagreement over what constitutes an “agreement” under INARA. Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a June 15 letter to Biden that “any agreement, arrangement, or understanding with Iran” needs to be sent to Congress per the 2015 law. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have reintroduced legislation that would mandate a congressional review of any proposed sanctions relief for Iran. 

“Just like the JCPOA moved forward despite congressional, bipartisan opposition, the ball is in the administration’s hands,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, using the acronym for the original nuclear pact. 

“That said, Congress does have the ability to legislate. Congress has the power of oversight. Congress has the ability to demand witnesses. Congress has the ability to demand documents. Congress can go to court to enforce any of these things,” Goldberg said in a media call Tuesday. 

Republicans fuming over a potential arrangement with Iran are gearing up to stymie it. The Washington Free Beacon reports that the Republican Study Committee is pushing for Special Envoy Rob Malley and Biden’s senior Middle East advisor Brett McGurk to testify in a public hearing, or risk being subpoenaed.