GOP Puts Biden Admin on Notice: Congress Not Bound By New Iran Deal

Republican leaders vow to block all sanctions relief for Tehran

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April 8, 2021

Republican foreign policy leaders in Congress officially informed the Biden administration late Wednesday that they will not be bound to any new agreement with Iran that promises relief from harsh economic sanctions, according to a copy of that communication exclusively obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The letter is a sign that any new Iran deal is likely to be plagued by the same weaknesses as the original 2015 accord, which the Obama administration never brought before Congress for approval. The decision to skirt Congress meant the deal was never ratified as a formal treaty and paved the way for the Trump administration to easily cancel it in 2018. GOP foreign policy leaders are now warning the Biden administration that any new deal will suffer a similar fate under the next Republican administration. The lawmakers are also sending a message to Tehran: Anything promised by the Biden administration can be taken back in the near future.

Following indirect talks with Iran this week in Vienna, the Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it is prepared to unilaterally unwind tough economic sanctions as part of a series of concessions meant to entice Iran into scaling back its nuclear work.

Republican leaders on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees say that any guarantees provided by the Biden administration, including sanctions relief, will be void unless they are brought before Congress for approval. "As members of Congress, a co-equal branch of the federal government, we do not consider ourselves bound by executive agreements which purport to make commitments on behalf of the Congress of the United States," Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) told the administration in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The letter represents the opening salvo in the GOP’s mounting efforts to interfere with the Biden administration’s ongoing diplomacy with Iran, which is being conducted without input from Democrats and Republicans on the Hill.

Banks and Wilson further warn the administration that Republicans in Congress will immediately "oppose, and ... work to reverse, any sanctions relief for Iran," potentially making any new agreement dead-on-arrival and unenforceable in the long-term. This effort could attract support from hawkish Democrats, many of whom have already warned the Biden administration against unraveling sanctions that have crippled the hardline regime’s economy and sparked widespread anti-government protests.

The State Department’s decision to offer sanctions relief before Iran commits to ceasing its nuclear weapons work contradicts earlier promises from senior administration officials, including Blinken, who repeatedly vowed before Congress that he would not unwind sanctions as a precondition for talks with Tehran. That policy has already been reversed in the wake of talks with Iran and European powers this week in Vienna.

The administration’s unilateral actions to unravel sanctions also contradict Blinken’s sworn testimony before Congress in January, in which he promised to restore Congress’s traditional role in sculpting foreign policy. When the Obama administration first inked the 2015 accord, it bypassed Congress due to fears that lawmakers would not sign off on a deal that awarded Iran with billions of dollars in cash and legitimized its nuclear enrichment program. The Biden administration appears to be traveling down a similar path, despite promises otherwise.

"I agree with Blinken's comments last January, we must restore Congress' role in foreign policy," Banks told the Free Beacon. "Any deal with Iran should be submitted to the Senate as a treaty for ratification, and Congress should have an up or down vote on the lifting of any sanctions."

In their letter, Banks and Wilson—both leaders on the Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus of conservative lawmakers in Congress—demand Blinken explain why he did not "seek congressional input prior to agreeing" to a new framework in Vienna. They also want concrete answers about how the Biden administration will involve Congress "in any future negotiations."

They also call out the Biden State Department for exhibiting "a troubling pattern of ignoring congressional oversight" during its first few months in office. This includes the refusal of senior U.S. officials, including U.S.-Iran envoy Robert Malley, to brief congressional Republicans about the administration’s early outreach to Iran. The State Department also has failed to comply with a congressional investigation into its backchannel efforts to secure $1 billion for Iran as part of a ransom payment tied to Tehran’s seizure of a South Korean ship earlier this year.

The lawmakers further accuse the administration of already violating the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which required the president to submit any agreements with Iran to Congress for a vote before any sanctions are removed. The law is widely interpreted as including any new guarantees provided by the United States as part of negotiations to rejoin the original accord.

Banks and Wilson demand Blinken provide assurances the administration will comply with INARA and seek congressional approval before it formally reenters into the nuclear deal, according to the letter.

"Blinken testified under oath that he wanted to restore the role of Congress in foreign policy, yet the administration has refused to commit to adhering to the bipartisan INARA law, and has refused to submit the failed Iran nuclear deal to the Senate as a treaty for ratification," Wilson told the Free Beacon. "Congress must have a role … [and the GOP] will continue to push back against the administration’s attempts to bypass Congress."