BY LAURA KELLY
The Biden administration is moving forward on steps to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, with officials set to participate in high level discussions with signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna next week.
The U.S. and Iran are not expected to meet face to face, although administration officials have said they remain open to direct talks.
The Vienna meeting marks the most forward movement for the Biden team, which will engage with European, Russian and Chinese counterparts over what steps the U.S. can take to achieve a “mutual return” for both America and Iran.
The meeting is likely to draw intense scrutiny from Capitol Hill, where hundreds of lawmakers have signed on to a handful of letters to the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken over their concerns of engaging with Iran.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee led by Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), tweeted support for the meeting.
“This is an important, though preliminary step. Tough and smart diplomacy in close coordination with our European allies and regional partners is the best way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and restore full compliance with the JCPOA,” he said.
President Biden has made rejoining the deal a priority foreign policy for his administration. He appointed as U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, a key member of the negotiating team that brokered the 2015 agreement.
The deal, negotiated during the Obama administration while Biden was vice president, put significant, but temporary, limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief from the U.S. and international community.
Critics argue it did not go far enough in preventing Iran from ever attaining a nuclear weapon and did not address a range of malign activity by the Islamic Republic, including its ballistic missile programs, support for proxy fighting forces across the Middle East, support for terrorism and human rights abuses.
“The United States must not once again abandon the leverage that is bringing Iran back to the negotiating table without confronting both Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear activities that need to be stopped,” 140 House Republicans wrote in a letter to President Biden in February, opposing a return to the JCPOA.
The former Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran when it withdrew from the deal in May 2018, and added an array of other punitive measures as part of a “maximum pressure campaign” aimed at forcing Tehran to the negotiating table for a stronger agreement.
Tehran maintains its nuclear program is peaceful but nuclear watchers say the Islamic Republic is likely only a few months away from building a bomb. Iran began increasing its uranium enrichment in 2019, breaking the terms of the JCPOA in retaliation for the sanctions imposed by the then-Trump administration.
The Biden team and Iran have been in a “who goes first” conundrum over each side’s demands.
The U.S. has been worried by Iran’s enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent, far above the deal’s limit of 3.67 percent. Uranium is considered weapons grade when enriched to approximately 90 percent.
The Biden team has called on Iran to reverse its uranium enrichment before sanctions are eased. Tehran calls this a nonstarter.
The meeting in Vienna will seek to establish a road map of steps both sides can take to bring them back to compliance with the deal, including identifying “sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures,” according to a statement released Friday by the JCPOA signatories – China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and Iran.
State Department Principal Deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said in a briefing with reporters that the U.S. would not preview any specific sanctions to be lifted, but that sanctions relief steps will be discussed during the meeting.
“We’re going to talk about nuclear steps that Iran would need to take in order to return to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA and, we won’t preview any specific sanctions, but we’ll definitely say that sanction relief steps that the U.S. would need to take in order to return to that compliance as well, we’ll be up for discussion,” she said.
Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that both Washington and Tehran are in agreement about returning to the JCPOA, but that the path to mutual compliance is not going to be easy.
“The discussions are likely to encounter challenges regarding scope and sequencing on both the nuclear and sanctions relief fronts, as well as skepticism in Washington as well as Tehran,” he said.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have sought to close the gap on their disagreements of the utility of the JCPOA as part of efforts to promote a united front in their opposition to Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon and destabilizing actions in the region.
Last month, 40 senators from both sides of the aisle signed a letter to the president urging the use of all diplomatic and economic tools to prevent Iran from developing the ability to attain a nuclear weapon.
“Iran should have no doubt about America’s policy. Democrats and Republicans may have tactical differences, but we are united on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior. We look forward to working with you to achieve these objectives,” the senators wrote.
Likewise, a bipartisan letter signed by 140 House members called for addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and its other troubling actions.
“As Democrats and Republicans from across the political spectrum, we are united in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior,” they wrote.
Lawmakers are also concerned over sanctions relief for Iran without meaningful verification that it has taken steps to put itself back in compliance with the JCPOA.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken answered in the affirmative when questioned by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) during a hearing last month that the U.S. would not make any concessions to get a meeting with Iran nor lift sanctions until Iran is verifiably in full compliance with the JCPOA, or on a negotiated path toward full compliance.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) further pressed Blinken to commit to formally consulting with Congress before lifting any sanctions.
“We’re determined to consult on the takeoff not on the landing across the board – but, yes particularly when it comes to Iran,” Blinken said.