On the hill

Congressional Republicans push barrage of Iran legislation

GOP lawmakers are making concerted efforts to put the brakes on the Biden administration’s efforts to reenter the Iran deal

House Television via AP

Members of the House of Representatives vote on legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 27, 2020.

Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House have introduced a surge of legislation in recent weeks seeking to further crack down on Iran and put the brakes on the Biden administration’s efforts to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.

The eight pieces of legislation address issues including tightening sanctions enforcement, expressing disapproval of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), opposing easing sanctions on Iran and seeking to block the U.S. from reentering the JCPOA entirely.

Some of the measures have gained minimal traction, but others have found support among GOP lawmakers. 

In the Senate, a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) seeking congressional oversight over sanctions reductions has gained 27 cosponsors. A resolution introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) opposing any form of sanctions reduction that does not address both Iran’s nuclear program and its other provocations — such as its recent attack on U.S. personnel in Iraq and its exporting of terrorism through its Middle East proxies — has gained 31 cosponsors. The House companion legislation to Hagerty’s bill and Cotton’s resolution have 24 and 30 GOP sponsors, respectively.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who sponsored the House version of Hagerty’s bill, told JI that the legislation seeks to give congressional oversight on sanctions relief in order to give the American people a voice in the process.

“I don’t want to see us again fall back into the scheme of Tehran blackmailing us and extorting us and us giving up sanctions for really very little of anything,” Hagerty said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “The concern I’ve got is that the Biden administration wants to roll back our sanctions, just in exchange for reentering the deal. It took us a long time to get the sanctions in place. We’ve got pressure on Iran now that is like never before. And this is not the time to be backing off.”

Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), who introduced a House bill that seeks to compel the Biden administration to submit any replacement agreement for Senate consideration as a treaty, offered a similar argument.

“If the Biden administration wants to jeopardize the national security of Israel, one of our greatest allies, they should go through Congress to do so,” Barr told JI. “The Biden administration should work with Congress and our allies in the international community to construct similar sanctions implemented at the beginning of the Obama administration that proved effective, instead of accepting as a foregone conclusion that the Iranians will eventually become a nuclear power.”

Hagerty said Iran’s continued provocations under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime served as evidence that the U.S. should not back down on sanctions.

“I certainly would not want to provide more resources to Iran to do this,” he said, emphasizing that the 2015 deal had freed up funds to the regime.

The Tennessee senator said he expects sanctions to have more long-term success in curbing Iranian activities.

“We need to continue to put pressure on them,” he said. “Their economy is contracting, that has got to be felt broadly, in Iran, and that’s going to put pressure on the regime much more than  anything else we could do right now.”

McCaul said that by limiting the Iranian regime’s access to funds — particularly $70 billion in oil revenue — sanctions created leverage for the U.S. in negotiations with Iran.

“I hope the Biden administration will use that leverage to secure a better, comprehensive deal with Iran,” he said. “President Trump’s crippling sanctions gave the Biden administration an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.”

Barr echoed McCaul’s sentiments. “Iran came to the negotiating table in the first place [in 2015] because of the crushing economic sanctions imposed by the United States and our allies,” he told JI.

Hagerty indicated that he believes the 2015 deal’s European signatories — France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia — have fundamentally different interests in negotiations than the U.S. does.

“Think about what the incentives are here: The Europeans want us to get into this deal because they want the sanctions released because they want to be back doing business with Iran again,” he explained. 

The Tennessee Republican said the U.S. should not reengage in talks with Iran until the regime stops all of its attacks on U.S. forces, allies and contractors, and halts nuclear enrichment. Iranian officials have said that they will not return to the negotiating table until the U.S. has lifted sanctions on Tehran.

“They need to take a step back themselves, rather than expecting us to step up and fund them and make concessions without them doing anything,” Hagerty said. 

Secretary of State Tony Blinken has pledged repeatedly that the U.S. will not withdraw any sanctions against Iran until it brings its nuclear enrichment back to compliance with the 2015 deal, but has also said that the U.S. is ready for talks to resume.

Hagerty argued that his legislation “ought to be widely bipartisan,” noting that it follows a similar framework to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a provision of which prevented the president from repealing sanctions against Russia without congressional approval.

But bipartisan support has thus far not been forthcoming for Hagerty’s bill, nor any of the other GOP-led legislation addressing Iran’s nuclear program and the 2015 agreement. Without any Democratic support, the legislation is unlikely to pass through either chamber of Congress. 

Nevertheless, the deluge of legislation reflects deep GOP opposition to and concern about the Biden administration’s approach to Iran — which has also taken center state during recent congressional hearings with Biden’s foreign policy appointees. “Members of Congress feel strongly about the Iran issue given the national security implications,” McCaul said “For an issue as important as this, we need all hands on deck.”

Democrats have been comparatively much less active in terms of legislative action on Iran. In the House, a bipartisan group of five centrist Democrats and one Republican introduced a resolution last week condemning Iran’s nuclear program. Senate Democrats introduced a resolution in late February calling for “a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear program”; it  has 11 Democratic cosponsors but no GOP support.

Two other pieces of Iran-related legislation in the House — one calling for an inquiry into potential additional sanctions that could be placed on Iranian leadership and another calling, in broad terms, for a “democratic, secular, and non-nuclear” Iran — have bipartisan support, but do not directly address Iran’s nuclear program.

In addition to the resolutions, House members have also issued at least four letters regarding Iran since the 2020 election, including one from Democratic lawmakers urging sanctions relief and a quick reentry into the 2015 deal, one from Republicans urging a more aggressive approach to the Iranian regime and two bipartisan letters — one laying out a middle path and the other urging continued pressure on Iran.