President Biden faced sharp criticism from within his own party over his struggling Iran policy Wednesday, with a top Senate Democrat pressing the administration to face “the increasingly obvious reality” that its attempt to restore the Obama-era nuclear deal with Tehran is not in America’s best interest.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, openly reprimanded the Biden administration for miscalculating Iran’s posture and specifically misjudging the extent to which Iranian negotiators would be willing to return to the 2015 deal on terms that could be acceptable to the United States.
“Iran has dragged out this process, driving up its demands and exerting its leverage, convincing the world that the United States wants the [nuclear deal] more than the Iranian regime does,” Mr. Menendez said at a committee hearing examining the administration’s Iran policy.
With the White House grappling with months of stalled talks with Tehran, the administration’s lead negotiator conceded in testimony that the chances of restoring the nuclear that President Trump withdrew in 2018 have become increasingly slim.
“As I speak to you, we do not have a deal, and prospects for reaching one are tenuous at best,” Robert Malley, special envoy for Iran, told lawmakers in a sober assessment of his attempts to breathe life back into the agreement, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“If Iran maintains demands that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA, we will continue to reject them and there will be no deal,” Mr. Malley said.
Under the Obama-era accord, the U.S. and other world powers gave Tehran major sanctions relief in exchange for limits to the Iranian nuclear program.
Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement on grounds that it failed to address a wider scope of what U.S. intelligence officials describe as malign activity by Iran, including Tehran’s backing of militant proxies in several Middle Eastern nations and the pursuit of a ballistic missile program in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In pulling out, the Trump administration reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran that were lifted when the deal was reached in 2015. Other world powers that had been part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including Russia, China and the European Union, scrambled to try to hold the deal together after the U.S. pullout.
Their efforts largely fell by the wayside as the Trump administration embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran that included adding Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
When Mr. Biden arrived in the White House last year, he signaled a desire to restore diplomatic talks with Iran and pursue a return to the plan of action. A new hard-line government in Iran demanded that the Biden administration swiftly halt all U.S. sanctions and remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the terrorist list.
Although the administration has signaled a willingness to halt sanctions, it has shown little appetite for removing the IRGC from the terrorist list.
Mr. Malley testified Wednesday that the administration has “no illusion” about the threat posed by Iran. “Nuclear or no nuclear deal,” he said, “this Iranian government will remain a threat.”
However, he also sought to cast blame on Mr. Trump. He said the reimposition of sanctions on Iran has done little to curb Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and has exacerbated Iranian provocations against Washington and U.S. allies.
Mr. Malley, who served on the Obama administration’s Iran team before Mr. Biden tapped him to try to renew negotiations with Tehran last year, told lawmakers that since the U.S. pulled out of the deal, Iran had shortened its nuclear breakout time — the amount of time it would take to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon — to a matter of weeks.
Iran also has drastically increased attacks against the U.S. and its allies, he said. He added that Washington is in a tenuous position because of the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal.
“When President Biden came into office, he inherited an immediate crisis, an unbridled Iranian nuclear program that makes every other problem we’ve had with Iran more dangerous and intractable,” Mr. Malley said.
“The simple fact,” he said, is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had been working as a “means of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.”
Despite the decreasing likelihood of reaching a deal with Iran, Mr. Malley said, the Biden administration intends to keep the negotiating line open with Tehran.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have eyed the administration’s attempts to restore the deal with skepticism and have openly criticized the White House for keeping details of on-again, off-again negotiations with Iran too close to the vest.
Mr. Malley’s appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday was in response to a demand by Mr. Menendez that the administration provide an update to Congress on its negotiations.
During the hearing, Mr. Menendez agreed with Mr. Malley that Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal contributed, in part, to Iran’s recent advances in acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Still, the New Jersey Democrat was no less critical of the Biden administration for continuing attempts to restore the agreement while the Iranian regime forges deals with U.S. adversaries that have allowed Tehran to buck sanctions and make strides toward fully developed nuclear capability.
“Iran thinks it has options. If Iran wants to extract a better deal or concede less than U.S. national security demands, it can turn to its autocratic allies,” Mr. Menendez said.
“After months of negotiation, this is the Iran we must contend with,” he said. “Not the Iran you hoped would be driven by practical consideration at the bargaining table.”
The time has come for the administration to focus on a strategy for dealing with an Iran that may become more dangerous as it approaches nuclear weapons capability, the senator said.
“We must prepare for the increasingly obvious reality that we face in 2022. A return to the 2015 nuclear deal is not around the corner, and I believe it is not in the U.S.’s strategic interests,” Mr. Menendez said.
“We need to tackle what comes next, and we need to hear your plan,” he told Mr. Malley.
Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee, echoed Mr. Menendez’s frustrations.
“Instead of prolonging this period of uncertainty, it’s long past time the administration end negotiations and implement a more holistic Iran policy,” Mr. Risch said.
Lawmakers have pressed the administration to submit any potential deal with Iran to Congress for review. Republicans and Democrats have soured on the prospect of lifting sanctions to accommodate a new agreement.
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified that Iran would receive an estimated $275 billion in sanctions relief in the first year of a new deal and up to $1 trillion by 2031.
“This is all going to be a gold mine for Iran’s IRGC to fuel its repression, its regional aggression and global terrorism,” Mr. Dubowitz told the Foreign Relations Committee.
The Biden administration signaled that its posture toward negotiations with Iran may be hardening.
The Treasury Department announced sanctions targeting an oil smuggling network that U.S. intelligence officials say has been used to funnel cash to the elite Quds force branch of the IRGC and to Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militant outfit backed by Iran.
“While the United States continues to seek a mutual return to full implementation of the [Iran deal], we will not hesitate to target those who provide a critical lifeline of financial support and access to the international financial system for the Qods Force or Hezbollah,” said Brian E. Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Lawmakers have pressed the administration not to remove the IRGC from the terrorist list, a key demand for Iran that reportedly derailed the most recent round of talks in March.
U.S. ally Israel also has demanded that the IRGC remain on the list. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made headlines Tuesday by saying that Mr. Biden had assured him during a recent conversation that the IRGC would not be removed. “This is the right, moral and correct decision by President Biden,” Mr. Bennet said on Twitter.
The Biden administration would not confirm Wednesday that a final decision had been made on the foreign terrorist list.
“We are not negotiating in public and are not going to respond to specific claims about what sanctions we would be prepared to lift as part of a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” said a spokesperson for Mr. Biden’s National Security Council. “The president will do what’s in the best interests of U.S. national security.”
Mr. Dubowitz urged lawmakers to be “on guard” about the foreign terrorist listing. “Iran has a track record of making outrageous demands in order to trade them for egregious concessions,” he said. “The administration might try to sell Congress that they held the line on the outrageous so that they can accept the egregious. And we should be wary of that negotiating and marketing strategy.”