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Bipartisan House draft letter lays out middle path on Iran

The letter calls on Biden to employ both diplomacy and sanctions to address Iran’s ‘malign behavior’

Andrew Hart

Capitol Hill

Reps. Anthony Brown (D-MD) and Michael Waltz (R-FL) are collecting signatures from House members in both parties on a letter that suggests a framework for the Biden administration to approach potential negotiations with Iran.

The letter, a draft of which was obtained by Jewish Insider on Monday, calls for the U.S. to “engage Iran through a combination of diplomatic and sanction mechanisms to achieve full compliance of international obligations and a demonstrated commitment by Iran to addressing its malign behavior.” The letter focuses on steps the Biden administration can take in three areas: Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program and funding of terrorism. 

The letter is vague about whether those steps should take place prior to reentering the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018. Nor does the letter explicitly say whether the Biden administration should rejoin the existing deal or renegotiate a revised deal that includes all of these areas.

While the letter has attracted GOP signatories, some Republican critics have raised eyebrows at the recommendation that the U.S. “de-escalate tension in these conflicts,” viewing it as tacit permission to draw back U.S. sanctions against Iran. 

“For the community of three dozen, four dozen people that will read this letter in a technical way, that word means sanctions relief,” one congressional aide told JI. “That is how the community of people who do Iran stuff use that word… de-escalation is a dog whistle for sanctions relief. That’s what it means.”

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, specifies that “following the decertification of the JCPOA by the prior administration, Iran began violating the previously agreed upon restrictions on refining fissile material and stated that it was no longer bound by any of its limits.” 

That phrasing has also concerned some Republicans. 

“They’re asking Republicans to, in as many words, blame the Trump administration for Iran’s malign nuclear behavior, where right now we know that Iran was hiding past nuclear weapons work and keeping nuclear weapons technology on the shelf in a way that the IAEA couldn’t find,” the aide told JI. “Which is why it’s ridiculous. Like, they’re asking Republicans to say that Iran violated the deal because of [former President Donald] Trump, which is insane. Just insane.”

The scope of Iran’s nuclear program has been in question for years. These questions were exacerbated following an announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 that Mossad agents had obtained documents showing that Iran had, in violation of the 2015 deal, not been fully transparent about its past nuclear activity. Days later, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement.

Blinken said last month that in addition to working to “lengthen and strengthen” the 2015 agreement, the administration aimed to “address other areas of concern, including Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.” 

Administration officials have said repeatedly that the U.S. will only rejoin the deal if Iran returns to compliance with the 2015 agreement and will not remove sanctions unless the Iranian regime first scales back its nuclear program.

The letter will remain open for signatures until the end of the week, and the text could be altered before then. Neither Brown nor Waltz, who both sit on the House Armed Services Committee, were available to comment on the draft of the letter.

The new letter strikes a different tone than a letter in late December from 150 House Democrats, who urged the president to rejoin the 2015 deal without renegotiations and recommended lifting some sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Iran.

The GOP responded in kind in early February with a letter from 120 House Republicans to  Biden, which condemned the 2015 deal and discouraged the administration from reentering the agreement.

The Brown-Waltz letter appears to seek a middle path to build bipartisan consensus by encouraging Biden to address the full range of Iran’s malign behavior, but stops short of both the strident denunciations of the original deal in the GOP letter and the explicit calls for sanctions relief and rejoining the JCPOA in the Democratic letter.

“As Democrats and Republicans from across the political spectrum, we are united in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior,” the letter reads. “There is consensus within Congress that allowing one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism to obtain nuclear weapons is an unacceptable risk. We recognize that there is not a singular diplomatic path forward on these objectives and we look forward to working with you as partners to achieve lasting peace in the region.”

Dear Secretary Blinken:

As the Biden administration considers negotiations with Iran, we write to express our bipartisan and shared view that any agreement or set of agreements with Iran must be comprehensive in nature to address the full range of threats that Iran poses to the region.

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) entered into force, Iran has continued to test ballistic missile technology that could potentially be applied to nuclear capable missiles, funded and supported terrorism throughout the Middle East, and engaged in cyber attacks to disrupt the global economy. Following the decertification of the JCPOA by the prior administration, Iran began violating the previously agreed upon restrictions on refining fissile material and stated that it was no longer bound by any of its limits.

We call upon the administration to address these actions by Iran, de-escalate tension in these conflicts, and ensure the security of all nations in the region. America and our allies must engage Iran through a combination of diplomatic and sanction mechanisms to achieve full compliance of international obligations and a demonstrated commitment by Iran to addressing its malign behavior. Three core tenets – their nuclear program, their ballistic missile program, and their funding of terrorism – must be addressed from the outset.

First, restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program must be extended until the regime conclusively demonstrates that it has no interest in a nuclear weapons program. Members of Congress and presidents from both parties, including President Biden, have long held that Iran must never be able to acquire nuclear weapons. The current inspection regime must be tightened to prevent the delays international inspectors have faced visiting suspect sites and Iran must resolve recently emerging concerns with its nuclear archive and the IAEA’s discovery of undeclared uranium particles.

Second, diplomacy with Iran must limit not only the production of nuclear material but also ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Over the past five years, Iran has defied the international community with respect to its ballistic missile program and continued its development of technology that could be used for a delivery system. This refinement and advancement of missile technology is destabilizing and increases the potential threat of a nuclear attack on nations within the region.

Third, Iran’s malign behavior throughout the Middle East must be addressed. It has sowed chaos in Syria and Yemen, continued to arm Hezbollah and worked to provide the terrorist group with precision guided missiles to attack Israel, and backed forces in Iraq that have targeted American troops and worked to undermine the Iraqi government, and taken American citizens prisoner. These and potential future actions must be addressed and Iran must release their political prisoners.

As Democrats and Republicans from across the political spectrum, we are united in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior. There is consensus within Congress that allowing one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism to obtain nuclear weapons is an unacceptable risk. We recognize that there is not a singular diplomatic path forward on these objectives and we look forward to working with you as partners to achieve lasting peace in the region.

Sincerely,

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