Inside the GOP Plan to Oppose Biden’s Iran Deal

Republicans work to block sanctions relief, police Biden’s push for a new nuke deal

Getty Images
March 2, 2021

Congressional Republicans are working on a range of measures to stop the Biden administration from reentering the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, an effort that includes a full-court press to block sanctions relief for Tehran until it fully dismantles its contested nuclear program, according to conversations with multiple GOP foreign policy leaders.

Republicans face an uphill battle given Democratic control of Congress and the Biden administration's ability to steer U.S. foreign policy during the next four years. But the opposition to full-scale sanctions relief on both sides of the aisle could force the administration to recalibrate its approach to diplomacy.

As part of this effort, the Republican Study Committee—Congress’s largest caucus of GOP lawmakers—unveiled on Tuesday the most detailed plan yet to counter the Biden administration’s overtures toward Tehran and block it from unraveling former president Donald Trump’s "maximum pressure" campaign on the country, which included crippling sanctions.

The caucus vowed to "fight against and work to reverse any and all sanctions relief for Iran" until the country halts its nuclear program, releases all U.S. hostages, halts its missile program, and ends its global support for terrorism, according to a copy of the GOP plan that was unanimously approved on Tuesday morning and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Sources close to the RSC said it is among the most comprehensive policy positions that caucus has ever taken in its 47-year history.

The new strategy document is just one piece of a larger effort by GOP foreign policy leaders in Congress to stymie the Biden administration as it moves toward direct talks with Iran. While Republicans are in the minority and will have a tough time passing any Iran-related legislation, they are united across the board in their opposition to rejoining the nuclear deal—a message that they intend to deliver to the Biden administration.

Beyond legislation, Republicans plan to hold open hearings on the administration's diplomacy and will pressure U.S.-Iran envoy Robert Malley and other State Department officials to keep them apprised of any new deals with Tehran. For instance, after Malley quietly held talks with China last month about rejoining the deal, GOP lawmakers quickly pressed the State Department to provide them with a full readout of Malley's conversation. This type of oversight is likely to become a hallmark of the GOP's response to diplomacy with Iran.

Lawmakers from across the GOP foreign policy establishment told the Free Beacon they are engaged in this constant-messaging campaign and will spend the next several years working to expose any concessions the Biden administration makes to Iran. They also will push multiple pieces of legislation aimed at preserving sanctions and making it clear to the Biden administration that if it conducts diplomacy without Republican support, any new deal will have little chance of long-term survival. It is an effort that could attract support from mainstream Democrats, particularly leaders like Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a prominent champion of Iran sanctions who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), the RSC’s chairman and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon that the Biden administration is aware it cannot capitulate to Iranian demands for sanctions relief as a prerequisite for diplomatic talks. While the State Department has signaled it is open to a certain level of sanctions relief, the administration will face massive blowback from U.S. allies, primarily Israel, if it is seen as caving to Tehran’s unrealistic demands.

"We will be fighting any attempt by the Biden administration to return to the failed Obama strategy on Iran or accept any ‘Iran Deal lite’ or ‘Iran Deal 2.0,’" Banks said.

Republicans also say they will "reimpose all sanctions on Iran that Biden is lifting" once the administration is out of office—another effort that will limit the administration’s leverage as it negotiates with Tehran, according to Rep. Greg Steube (R., Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Steube said he also plans to investigate a budding effort by the Biden administration to have South Korea unfreeze Iranian assets, money that will likely fund the regime’s military efforts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Free Beacon that Democrats and Republicans on the committee all share concerns the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts could end up bolstering Iran’s hardline regime at a time when it is under intense economic and political pressure.

"Stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t a Republican priority or Democrat priority—it’s an American priority," McCaul said. "But we have to start from a position of strength, and we must ensure the steps we take keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the long term. Short-term solutions are no solutions at all."

In addition to fighting sanctions relief, the RSC policy document backs former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s 12-point plan for diplomacy with Iran, which required Iran shutter its nuclear sites before negotiations could commence. It also required Iran consent to nuclear inspections at any time and at any site of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s choosing.

That plan "should be the gold standard for Republicans in Congress," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), a Foreign Affairs Committee member and head of the RSC’s national security taskforce. That means "no sanctions relief for Iran whatsoever unless Iran meets all 12 points laid out by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo."

Richard Goldberg, the former director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction on Trump's White House National Security Council, said the GOP's effort will send a clear message to international companies that Iran is still not open for business.

"This kind of methodical and comprehensive rejection of attempts to rejoin the JCPOA and lift U.S. sanctions doesn't just send a message to the Biden administration—it sends a very loud message to banks and companies around the world," said Goldberg, now a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The message: Even if President Biden manages to lift sanctions at some point, the moment Republicans take control of Congress or the White House pendulum swings back to a Republican, U.S. sanctions will return in full force if Iran hasn't stopped its malign activities. Would you want to sign a contract in Iran under that cloud?"

Pompeo, who has continued to back a hardline stance on Iran since leaving office, told the Free Beacon that the Biden administration is seeking to rewind the clock to a time when Iran was not under immense international economic pressure. Additionally, the Abraham Accords, a landmark peace deal between Israel and its Arab foes, solidified a regional sea change, one that was chiefly built around opposition to Iran and its terrorist enterprise.

"Even accepting they want a deal—why would you walk away from the leverage before you even table opening positions or initial discussions? Odd. It’s as if they see this as 2015 when they left and they want to start at that point," Pompeo said. "That is certainly the regime’s position: Revert to 2015 and then we can talk."

Other lawmakers who spoke to the Free Beacon about their long-term plans regarding Iran pushed back against criticism from the Biden administration and its allies that the GOP’s only plan is obstruction. Rep. Darrel Issa (R., Calif.), also an HFAC member, described these claims—often made by the Biden State Department—as hypocritical. "To claim [Republicans] have no policy when they have deliverables on that policy is really the ultimate in disingenuous activity out of the State Department," he said.