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Republican Pressure Mounts to Stop Biden’s Return to Iran Nuclear Deal

New GOP bills aim to thwart admin's 'maximum concession campaign'

Uranium conversion facility outside Isfahan, Iran / Getty Images
• March 19, 2021 11:10 am

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Republican foreign policy leaders in Congress filed two new bills on Friday that would increase economic sanctions on Iran as part of an effort to handicap the Biden administration's attempts to pursue a revamped nuclear deal, according to a copy of the new measures exclusively obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The two new bills would formally designate Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as terror organizations and apply new sanctions on Iranian human rights abusers, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They were filed just a day after members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest conservative caucus in Congress, held a virtual strategy session with former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus and former special representative for Iran Brian Hook about "how to defend President Trump's maximum pressure campaign on Iran in Congress," according to sources familiar with the content of the meeting.

The RSC's legislative push, helmed by Reps. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) and Jim Banks (R., Ind.), comes as the Biden administration considers a range of concessions, including sanctions relief, meant to entice Iran back to the bargaining table. While the GOP legislation stands little chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Congress, it is meant to send a message to Tehran and European powers that a significant portion of American lawmakers oppose the administration's diplomacy and stand ready to reimpose any sanctions that might be lifted in the coming weeks and months. The effort could gain steam among hawkish Democrats, at least 70 of whom recently wrote to President Joe Biden urging him not to lift sanctions on Iran as a precondition for talks about its growing nuclear program.

Congressional sources close to the RSC said the meeting with Hook and Ortagus—both of whom were key to Trump's maximum pressure campaign on Iran—persuaded GOP leaders to "push back on Biden's radical Iran policy," both by legislation and by investigating its efforts to lift sanctions without first consulting Congress. Republicans have been mostly left in the dark about the administration's diplomatic plans with the Islamic Republic. U.S.-Iran envoy Robert Malley has yet to provide them an in-depth brief about his conversations with China and other countries regarding a new nuclear deal. The Biden administration has also been secretive about a reported effort to help South Korea provide Iran with around $1 billion in ransom after Tehran seized a ship belonging to the Asian country.

"President Trump's max pressure campaign worked—it slashed Iran's defense budget by 25 percent and Joe Biden's response is to do a complete 180? Under Joe Biden's maximum concession campaign, sanctioning terrorists who've murdered Americans is beyond the pale, but policies that boost Iran's defense budget and endanger our regional allies are perfectly acceptable," Banks told the Free Beacon.

Banks, the RSC's chairman and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, described the administration's diplomatic efforts as "middle school politics" that are "based on personal disdain for President Trump and completely ignorant of geopolitical reality." Congress, he said, will do all that it can to maintain pressure on Iran and confront the country's terror proxies operating in the region.

The two new bills are part of the legislative offensive outlined by Banks.

The first measure, authored by Wilson, head of the RSC's national security and foreign affairs task force, would mandate that the U.S. government determine if Iran's senior leadership, including its supreme leader, meet the criteria for sanctions under a 2010 executive order signed by then-president Barack Obama. The bill would force the Biden administration to publicly reject Obama's efforts to hold Iranian human rights violators accountable. The RSC views the legislation as a litmus test for Biden, who has often championed human rights abroad.

Wilson's bill also includes unprecedented language supporting democracy and human rights in Iran, stopping just short of calling for all-out regime change. It would also require the U.S. government to create a public report exposing Khamenei's financial empire and its illicit support for terrorism.

"The sanctions authorities employed in this bill originated in a bipartisan law passed by Congress and an Executive Order issued by former President Barack Obama," Wilson told the Free Beacon. "It would be immoral, and also not in our strategic interests, to throw the Iranian people under the bus again, just to negotiate with the Iranian regimes or reenter into a failed deal with Iran again."

The second bill, authored by Rep. Greg Steube (R., Fla.), would apply new terrorism sanctions on Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), an Iranian-backed militia operating in Iraq that is responsible for strikes on U.S. and coalition forces. It is the same group that Biden recently bombed in Syria as part of reprisals for attacks on the United States in the region. Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada is not currently subject to any U.S. sanctions and was formerly under the command of Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian general who was killed in a 2020 U.S. airstrike.

As with the previous piece of legislation, Republicans want to force the administration to take a public stand on a group that has killed Americans and peddled Iranian influence across the region.

"Not only does Iran-backed KSS pose a serious threat to peace and stability in the region, but they are also directly responsible for American servicemember deaths in Iraq," Steube told the Free Beacon. "Their continued attacks on Americans and our strategic interests demands a strong and decisive response from the Biden administration, but all we have seen from Biden's top officials so far are dangerous concessions and radical appeasement."