It was early last week when Biden administration officials held a closed-door briefing with senators on Iran’s nuclear program. By all accounts, it was sobering: Politico reported that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran is now at a stage in which it could produce enough material for a nuclear bomb in as little as two months.
There’s no great mystery as to how we arrived at this point. After Donald Trump abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the West lost verification access to Tehran’s program, and Iran almost immediately became more dangerous by starting up advanced centrifuges and ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium.
But just as important as acknowledging who’s to blame for getting us in this mess is figuring out a solution to clean it up. Diplomatic efforts have been underway in Vienna over the course of the last several months, and there’s been some progress. Indeed, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said this week that an agreement “is in sight.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that the talks are in “the very final stages.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is, congressional Republicans are already talking about derailing the policy breakthrough if it comes together. The New York Times reported:
Last week, 33 Republican senators warned in a letter to the White House that any deal would “likely be torn up” by the next presidential administration “as early as January 2025.” A letter signed by more than 100 House Republicans this week issued a similar threat.
Note, in the short term, it doesn’t much matter whether congressional Republicans approve of an agreement, should it exist, since a deal wouldn’t have to be ratified by Congress. Lawmakers could vote on a measure to block the policy, but even if such a resolution were to pass — an unlikely scenario — President Joe Biden would veto it.
But these GOP members aren’t thinking about the immediate future; their message is focused on the road ahead. The Republicans’ message is simple: The Biden administration may successfully help negotiate a breakthrough agreement in 2022, but the next time there’s a Republican in the White House, he or she will abandon the deal, just as Trump did.
Broadly speaking, there are two key problems with this.
First, the mere fact that these GOP lawmakers are speaking out and making threats may have an adverse effect on the process. Let’s not forget that in 2015, during the original JCPOA talks — known at the time as the P5+1 talks — 47 Senate Republicans wrote an open letter to Iranian officials, telling them not to trust the United States, as part of an effort to sabotage American foreign policy and derail the international diplomacy.
According to our allies, the GOP’s stunt had the effect of helping Iran during delicate negotiations and embarrassing the United States.
Seven years later, Senate Republicans aren’t being quite as bold in their sabotage efforts, but their efforts aren’t unfolding in a vacuum: Negotiators in Vienna will almost certainly take note of the fact that one of the United States’ two major parties is already preparing to destroy the deal they’re currently working on.
All of which leads to the other problem with the GOP’s posture: Before they make plans to see a possible agreement “torn up,” shouldn’t they wait to see whether the policy works?
What I’ve long found frustrating about this debate is the apparent indifference among the policy’s critics to its efficacy.
The original JCPOA, as negotiated by the Obama administration, did exactly what it set out to do. As we’ve discussed, the agreement dramatically curtailed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and established a rigorous system of monitoring and verification. Once the policy took effect, each of the parties agreed that the participants were holding up their end of the bargain, and Iran’s nuclear program was, at the time, on indefinite hold.
Soon after Donald Trump took office, the then-president held a lengthy White House meeting with top members of his national security team. Each of the officials told Trump the same thing: It was in the United States’ interest to preserve the policy.
The Republican expected his team to tell him how to get out of the international agreement, not how to stick with it. When his own foreign policy and national security advisers told him the policy was working, Trump “had a bit of a meltdown.”
Soon after, he abandoned the deal anyway, not because it was failing, but because Trump was indifferent to its success.
Three years later, his party is again eager to reject a possible agreement, without regard for whether it works.
And what happens if Republicans are able to follow through and uproot a nuclear deal in 2025? At this point, international negotiators will take what they can get. The Times’ report added, “Even if a new agreement lasts three years, American diplomats and other supporters said it would still meet its main objectives: easing Iran’s economic pain while slowing its suspected march to a nuclear bomb.”