President Biden’s foreign policy thus far has largely centered on damage control. Massaging relationships with allies and rejoining international agreements nixed by President Trump, Biden continually proclaims that “America is back.” While his administration has moved quickly to reverse course on some issues, they have cautiously engaged Iran in negotiations surrounding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), keeping sanctions in place and taking time to dialogue with international partners. Their meticulousness signals a fundamentally different approach to the foreign policy unilateralism exhibited by previous administrations.
Despite the GOP’s complaints that the administration is shutting out conservatives, President Biden has made it clear that bipartisanship is his preferred model of progress. If Congressional Republicans can resist partisanship rooted in political considerations, they could capitalize on an administration that has demonstrated a readiness to take the good-faith perspectives into consideration. In hearings and public statements, the GOP has stood united against resuming the JCPOA and lifting sanctions. Some senators, however, have signaled a willingness to refrain from sabotaging the Biden administration’s diplomatic process — so long as the executive branch takes their counsel into consideration. Despite favoring a return to the original deal first and foremost, Democrats and State Department officials concede that Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy merits an enhanced nuclear agreement. The GOP has pushed State Department nominees to take a strong stance on Iranian relations, but in elbowing for greater influence, the party has been cautioned against letting a perfect deal become the enemy of a good one. There is a fine line between addressing Iran’s nuclear program more comprehensively and trying to achieve “unachievable benchmarks.”
Listening constructively to the voices of their colleagues and counterparts, Republicans can hear how the U.S.-Iran dynamic has evolved to their liking. “I would note that 2021 is not 2015, when the deal was agreed, nor 2016, when it was implemented,” said Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at her confirmation hearing in February. “The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.” Sherman, a lead negotiator of the 2015 nuclear deal, is emblematic of the Biden administration’s evolving approach to Iranian behavior in the region.
President Biden is among many on Capitol Hill that seek a more comprehensive agreement. As a result of Iran’s retaliatory actions in response to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policies, a coalition of House members — 70 Republicans and 70 Democrats — recently asserted that the original stipulations of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are now antiquated. While even 54 Republicans and four Democrats were not enough to block the original deal in the Senate, there is now greater consensus among American politicians that more must be done to rein in Iranian misbehavior. The difference between the two parties lies in whether these actions should be taken before or after rejoining the JCPOA — either unilaterally through sanctions, or in concert with Iran and international partners.
Republicans must turn their back on their isolationist tendencies if they want an opportunity to influence the roadmap to “JCPOA 2.0.” As it is highly unlikely that 10 Democratic senators will join in a filibuster of a new deal, attempting to torpedo current negotiations is not a credible option for the GOP. Declarations that rejoining is a nonstarter, as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) has asserted, strike a hollow tone. A resolution introduced by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and co-signed by 25 Republican senators vociferously advocates for maintaining the Trump administration’s hardline approach to Iran; such showmanship will likely fail to persuade.
Just as this adamant opposition is nothing new, it is unclear what gains Republicans expect to make beyond further riling up their political base. While firm rhetoric has a place in shifting the window of discussion toward their preferred outcomes defiance will not go as far as dialogue in shaping the formulation and implementation of America’s policies on Iran.
Can Politics Stop at the Water’s Edge?
A recent profile of Republican Senator Todd Young (R-IN) by Politico focuses on the give-and-take between discourse and disarray, with a quote from the Indiana politician on the need for domestic cohesion against foreign adversaries. “Projecting a united front on the global stage is ‘both in the national interest and it comports with the desires and expectations of all of our constituents.’” The more that foreign policy resembles the “non-partisan exercise” embraced by Young, a former Marine Officer, the greater the chance that debate amongst the parties does not devolve into a zero-sum outcome.
Republican Senators such as Todd Young, Jim Risch, and Mitt Romney (R-UT) model the most successful method for Republicans to influence the Biden administration: a holistic consideration of how the calculus has changed since “maximum pressure,” while accounting for the process-related shortcomings of the Obama administration’s approach. While Young signed onto the aforementioned letter, it does not preclude his earnest input from reaching the consideration of executive decision-makers.
Bipartisanship does not equate obedience to the executive, nor does it require unanimity. In the second week of March, a letter circulated by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and backed by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) called for Biden to use “the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools[…]to come to an agreement that meaningfully constrains [Iran’s] destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.” Menendez was one of the four Democrats that opposed the JCPOA, and his cooperation with Graham could be interpreted as a shot against rejoining the deal. However, it could also foreshadow a less hyper-partisan debate on the shape of U.S.-Iran policy in the future.
Graham has acknowledged that open and frank dialogue can help to synchronize the positions of the executive and legislative branches. One of the shortcomings in the original JCPOA process was the sense that the Obama administration negotiated the agreement without soliciting any input from Congress. “They didn’t consult enough on the Iran deal. They just didn’t. They knew it was [Menendez’s] No. 1 issue,” said a source close to Senator Menendez. The Obama administration’s forceful approach led several prominent Democrats, including Menendez and then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to oppose the original deal.
The bipartisan letter sets the stage for an accommodation of the various voices hoping to influence the process. Graham, who has previously pushed for military action against Iran, left open the possibility of reconsideration: “I would encourage the Biden administration to pick [Menendez’s] brain, because if Bob can get onto something, Republicans are going to take it seriously.”
Such bonhomie is harmonious with calls to reign in unilateral executive power to use military force through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Biden’s inclination to cooperate with his colleagues on the Hill encourages good-faith contributions without tolerating political games or sabotage. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), one of the staunchest advocates for reforming the executive use of military force, believes that the relationship with this administration may fundamentally depart from those of the previous two: “You haven’t had an administration as populated with people who understand the role of the Senate, and also how helpful the Senate can be.” With President Biden formerly serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken once serving as its staff director, executive personnel and policy are both aligned with Young’s aspiration for a “united front.”
Nuclear Proliferation: A Ticking Time Bomb
Most legislators, government officials, and regional partners find themselves in a gray area of concerns and desires. The estimated four-month breakout time that Iran needs to acquire nuclear weapons is considered unacceptably short. The JCPOA’s 2025 expiration date looms much closer now than it did in 2015, something Romney drew particular attention to in hearings with State Department officials. Risch, a foreign policy Republican heavyweight, has railed against Iranian aggression and funding of terrorism, deeming it a more immediate threat to American interests than nuclear capability. For the Biden administration, however, priority number one is rolling back Iranian progress on nuclear weapons since American compliance was terminated in 2018.
In response to sanctions, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced significantly. While Tehran’s enrichment of uranium to 60% is still far off from the 90% needed for nuclear explosives, it is also far greater than the 3.67% upper limit allowed by the JCPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated in February that Iran possessed a stockpile of 2,976.8 kilograms, almost 15 times more than the 202.8-kilogram limit allowed under the 2015 agreement. The “breakout time” needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon has been pegged at “three to four months” by Secretary Blinken, and alternatively “around half a year” according to Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that Iran would no longer submit daily or weekly surveillance of nuclear facilities to the IAEA, and if they were not granted sanctions relief, they would eliminate the recordings altogether within three months.
Parties that seek to restore the original JCPOA are concerned that Biden’s national security apparatus has waited too long to engage with Iran, squandering precious time before Iran’s election season commences. This stems from a delicate balancing act on the part of the administration: a readiness to engage in dialogue with Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani without seeming spineless; a respect for the considerations of affected regional partners and European counterparts; and an understanding that giving weight to the input offered by Republicans can strengthen the process in the long run. Not only could such a deal be more effective at restraining Iranian aggression and relieving humanitarian suffering across the region, but it may also insulate the progress made through a new deal from unraveling due to partisan power shifts.
No Clear Route to Success
The best bet on the part of Republicans is not to try to brute-force a change of course for current JCPOA negotiations, as senators attempted in 2015. Their restraint might convince the Biden Administration to consult them as a partner in negotiations.
Already, some Republican positions have been integrated, such as the insistence that Iran first come back into compliance with the original JCPOA before America lifts its Trump-era sanctions. Secretary Blinken pushed back against Representative Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) question about who should act first in the issue of sequencing, stressing that the U.S. “can’t just return to the deal by flipping a switch.” Waiting so long to make progress on such a return has made Democrats, P5+1, and numerous elements of the international community nervous, especially as the Iranian nuclear program’s capacity continues to improve. And yet, a desire not to appear “soft on Iran” is ostensibly what Republicans would like to see at this point. The quiet, closed-door progress of diplomacy may be taking longer for reasons to their liking.
Though the extent to which Iran’s domestic politics influence the diplomatic process is alternatively cited as crucial or dismissed as a nonfactor, time is limited. In 6 weeks, Iran will hold its presidential election, an election for which the Guardian Council has disqualified nearly all “moderate” candidates who would be most likely to pursue diplomacy with the United States. President Rouhani, who is termed out, will likely see his coalition pay the price among voters for an economic crisis marred by sanctions, ineffective leadership, and failed policies. Facing a hardline Iranian president more adherent to the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. would find a newly belligerent partner in the song and dance of hot and cold war.
It is yet to be seen if diplomacy and de-escalation can coexist in the Republican playbook with aggressive sanctions and hardball negotiations. President Obama warned that, in practical terms, the only alternative to diplomacy was war with Iran. Under a more hardline president, will Iran’s “resistance economy” evolve into an even more belligerent resistance state? Alternatively, could a new administration in Iran embrace a deal-making posture? Either outcome is possible. But great risk lies in banking on the next administration to be more cooperative than the current one. There is no time like the present to pursue peace. if Republicans truly seek to eschew “forever wars” and embody foreign restraint, they should consider a renewed interest in diplomacy toward what is possible to achieve, rather than what is desired.
Andrew Mekhail is a graduate of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is interested in studying the challenges to human security and the ways in which states can address them diplomatically.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.