Lawmakers Probe Biden Admin Bid To Nix Sanctions on Iran

State Dept. ordered to turn over all internal records related to backroom deals with Tehran

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi / Getty Images
August 5, 2021

Congressional foreign policy leaders are investigating the Biden administration's private negotiations with Iran, which could waive sanctions on the country and provide its hardline regime with cash assets.

Republican lawmakers in a letter sent Thursday to the State and Treasury Departments requested that those departments "hand over all records of any communications" with Iranian leaders that discuss agreements to unwind sanctions. Iranian leaders revealed last month that the Biden administration is prepared to nix sanctions on the regime's lucrative oil trade and banks, as well as sanctions on senior government officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn into office on Thursday.

The lawmakers say it is unacceptable that Iranian officials have been briefed on these moves while the Biden administration continues to ignore congressional demands for information. U.S. officials continue to hash out the details of a revamped nuclear deal with Iranian diplomats in Vienna, though the talks have stalled in recent weeks over Iranian demands that the United States cancel virtually all sanctions that target the Islamic Republic.

The latest probe is just one of several investigations led by Republicans in Congress into the Biden administration's rumored concessions to Iran. State Department officials, including Iran envoy Rob Malley, have rebuffed all GOP requests for a briefing on the state of talks in the last several months. Internal administration records about the scope and scale of sanctions relief for Iran would help congressional opponents of the talks implement countermeasures to ensure sanctions remain in place.

"For months now, I have been pressuring the Biden administration for answers on sanctions relief that they plan to provide to the Iranian regime," Rep. Bryan Steil (R., Wis.), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon. Steil is leading the investigation along with Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. All of the lawmakers are also members of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in Congress, which is coordinating the series of probes into sanctions relief.

"It's concerning that the Iranian Parliament and the Iranian regime have more information on these talks than members of Congress in the United States," Steil said.

A State Department official, speaking only on background after this report was published, said "it is no secret that sanctions relief issues have been a priority for Iran through the negotiations." But nothing has been agreed to at this point.

"To date the Biden administration has not taken action to lift sanctions on any designated high-ranking Iranian officials," the State Department said, reiterating the U.S. position that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

"The precise nature and sequence of the sanctions-related steps that the United States would need to take to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is a subject of the talks," the State Department official told the Free Beacon. "We have made clear that we are prepared to return to Vienna to resume negotiations" and American diplomats are pressing "Iran to return to the negotiations soon so that we can seek to conclude our work.

The timeframe to reach an agreement "will not last indefinitely," the State Department says.

Documents provided to the Iranian parliament last month and translated from Farsi by the Free Beacon indicate that in addition to waiving sanctions on Iran's economy, the Biden administration is likely to cancel sanctions that target Raisi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and other senior officials for their role in ongoing mass human rights abuses. These measures were issued by the Trump administration as part of its maximum pressure campaign on Tehran.

The letter also gives the Biden administration until Aug. 13 to answer several questions, including whether Trump's sanctions will be overturned. They say this move is particularly important as the Iranian people participate in widespread anti-regime protests that expanded across the country in the last several weeks.

"The Biden administration should be supporting the thousands of protesters across Iran rather than offering to lift sanctions on Raisi, who has the blood of the Iranian people on his hands," Wilson told the Free Beacon.

Republican Study Committee members are pushing far-ranging legislation that would codify sanctions on Raisi and prohibit the Biden administration from lifting any measures targeting regime officials. The bill, called the Maximum Pressure Act, already has 108 cosponsors, including the majority of the GOP conference, as well as Republicans on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that if the Biden administration waives these sanctions, it will be sending a message to Iranian protesters that talks with the regime are more important.

"Sanctions relief for these individuals, especially at a time of growing domestic discontent is a strategic and moral mistake," Ben Taleblu told the Free Beacon. "It would be a gutting of the administration's promise to retain non-nuclear sanctions even as it pursues nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic."

Update 5:15 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from the State Department.