Renewed Iran talks met with bipartisan skepticism on Capitol Hill

‘I have a hard time seeing an Iranian government that’s cracking down on people in the way they are now as sort of having the credibility to deliver a [nuclear] deal,’ Sen. Tim Kaine said

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President Joe Biden speaks during a Juneteenth concert on the South Lawn of the White House on June 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S.’ renewed discussions with Iran over the regime’s nuclear program and American hostages were met with skepticism from senators on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday.

The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous U.S. officials, confirmed swirling rumors and reports of renewed engagements between the U.S. and the Iranian government, which have reportedly been occurring periodically throughout the year, mediated by Oman.

“I have a hard time seeing an Iranian government that’s cracking down on people in the way they are now as sort of having the credibility to deliver a [nuclear] deal,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told Jewish Insider. “I think you would find even those of us who were supporting the JCPOA, we’re so skeptical of Iran right now that you wouldn’t just get people up here who — because they supported in the past — are just going to be [supportive].”

Iran’s “misbehavior in the region, but in particular against its own people, has led to intense skepticism,” Kaine continued. 

However, he said that “we’ve got to be in talks over hostages for sure” and added that he does not oppose the idea of dialogue with the regime in principle. 

“Dialogue guarantees nothing,” he said. “The absence of dialogue often guarantees a lack of success. So I am completely for dialogue, but there would be a lot of skepticism right now.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a critic of Israel and vocal supporter of Iran talks, was somewhat more supportive of the reported discussions with Iran.

“I think it’s in our interests and everybody in the region’s interests to try to lower the temperature and reduce the risk of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon and further enriching. I don’t know all the details, but I certainly support an effort to try to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Van Hollen said.

Asked about Kaine’s view that a new nuclear agreement might not be warmly received among his colleagues, Van Hollen responded, “There are lots of factors, but, again we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball here and the overall result,” before being cut off by a closing subway door.

Republicans, meanwhile, protested the reported new talks.

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) said he had not yet seen the Wall Street Journal report, but “if that’s the case, I’m extremely discouraged… This whole approach to Iran is a wrongheaded move that makes our nation less safe, makes the entire region unstable, and I’m very disappointed to hear.”

Hagerty, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added that the Biden administration had not provided any indication to lawmakers that new talks were occurring. Senators said following a closed briefing last month that the administration had not communicated any progress toward an agreement with Iran, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told JI last week that he was unaware of reported progress toward an interim deal.

“If they’ve notified anybody up here, it’s news to me,” Hagerty said. 

Asked whether the administration had been upfront with Congress about the discussions, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) responded, “God no.”

“I think what they’re trying to do is do sanctions relief, getting around Congress,” Graham said. The administration is required to submit any agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program for congressional review, but critics speculate it is seeking to sidestep those requirements. “They want a deal so bad they can taste it. They’ll crawl through glass for it. It’s unseemly.”

The South Carolina senator added that he does not think sanctions relief or other forms of payment to the regime are the right path to freeing U.S. hostages held in Iran, instead proposing further tightening sanctions on the regime.

“You’re not going to solve the problem by being weak. We have people in a hostage environment. I understand — I’d like to get them out too,” he said. “But this idea of putting billions of dollars on the table is insane. You’ll just get more hostages.”

Graham, joined by Menendez and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), also introduced legislation on Wednesday that would require the director of National Intelligence to notify Congress within 48 hours if Iran produces or possesses uranium of greater than 60% purity.

The Iranian Enrichment Monitoring Act marks another step in efforts by Graham, Menendez and other lawmakers to increase congressional oversight of and information-sharing regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Following the initial notification, the DNI would be required to notify Congress again if Iran were to enrich more than 10 kilograms of uranium to a purity 5% or more higher than the previous notification.

“This legislation will ensure that Congress is informed in a timely manner of advancements by Iran regarding their desire to build a nuclear weapon,” Graham said in a statement. “I believe there is tremendous bipartisan support for this idea, and hope it becomes law as soon as possible.”

Separately, Graham told JI that he was introducing legislation with Blumenthal to directly sanction Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeinei, as an individual.

Blumenthal declined to comment to JI on Wednesday about the renewed nuclear talks with the regime, saying he was “not clear” on “what’s actually happening.”

Regarding the monitoring bill, Blumenthal said in a statement: “Monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and requiring Congress to be notified of significant enrichment activity will ensure our nation is fully aware of their capabilities. With proper safeguards and intelligence, we can be prepared to address the risks and dangers that may arise from Iran’s potential development of a nuclear weapon.”

“Every minute counts when it comes to monitoring the dangerous advancements in Iran’s nuclear program,” Menendez said in a statement. “This act will help ensure Congress is fully equipped with information about the developments of Iran’s nuclear program, and ensure the United States is able to respond to Iran’s provocations.”

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