The Obama Iran Deal is About to End

Ted Cruz arrives at a closed Iran briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Getty Images
Ted Cruz arrives at a closed Iran briefing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Getty Images

Iran nuclear deal: US officials give ‘sobering and shocking’ update

With Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon down to a matter of weeks, some senators are threatening a vote to block US re-entry into the JCPOA

Bryant Harris

Washington

Feb 9, 2022

Several key US officials on Wednesday briefed the Senate on the status of diplomatic efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, with a number of senators describing the updates as “sobering”.

The briefers at the closed hearing were Robert Malley, the lead US negotiator in the indirect nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, National Security Council co-ordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk, and an intelligence community official.

“That was a sobering and shocking briefing about where we are right now,” Democrat Chris Murphy told The National after the briefing.

“The information we got on breakout time is something we all have to really think about.”

Democrats Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine joined Republican James Risch in echoing Mr Murphy’s assessment. And Republican Ted Cruz called the briefing “troubling”.

Still, the senators remain divided over President Joe Biden’s attempts at diplomacy with Iran. Tehran has made significant technical advances since former president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.

Since then, Iran’s breakout time to build a nuclear weapon has fallen from about a year under the original deal down to a matter of weeks. And The Wall Street Journal reported last week that US officials expect Iran’s breakout time to be significantly less than a year under a restored nuclear deal.

“There’s still significant gaps between the US and Iranian side,” Mr Murphy said.

“A deal’s possible, but there’s a lot of work that has to be done.

“There needs to be modifications reflecting the reality of what’s happened since Trump’s decision to withdraw.

“It would largely be a re-entry to the agreement, but you’d have to make some modifications because of their work on advanced centrifuges.”

Any modifications to the original accord could allow Republicans — aided by a few sympathetic Democrats — to force a vote attempting to block a new accord.

Mr Risch, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly threatened to do so in a letter to Mr Biden, cosigned by 31 of his Republican colleagues.

“On the Iranian side, during the first year of your administration, the regime has made qualitative progress towards a nuclear arsenal that requires new measures to reverse, far beyond anything envisioned by the [nuclear deal],” they wrote.

Mr Risch told reporters after the Wednesday briefing that the Biden administration’s previous promises for a “longer and stronger” Iran deal are “not going to happen”.

But Mr Risch and his allies are unlikely to muster the 60 votes necessary needed to tank any new agreement, due to a Senate procedural mechanism called the filibuster.

Russian contractors are seen working at the Bushehr nuclear reactor site in south of Iran, Tuesday, April 3, 2007.  Photographer: Yalda Moaiery/document IRAN/ Bloomberg News.
epa04845906 (FILE) A file picture dated 03 February 2007 shows an Iranian technecian at the International Atomic Energy Agency inspecting the site of the uranium conversion plan of Isfahan, central Iran. Foreign ministers from six world powers and Iran finally achieved an agreement to prevent the Islamic republic from developing nuclear weapons, Western diplomats said in Vienna on 14 July 2015.  EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH *** Local Caption *** 52054282
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows workers on a construction site in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start works for a second reactor at the facility. - Bushehr is Iran's only nuclear power station and is currently running on imported fuel from Russia that is closely monitored by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A handout picture released by the Iranian president's official website shows a metal-encased rod with 20 percent enriched nuclear fuel as it is inserted into Tehran's reactor on February 15, 2012 . Ahmadinejad unveiled what was described by local media as Iran's first domestically produced, 20-percent enriched nuclear fuel for the capital's research reactor.    AFP PHOTO/HO-- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - AFP IS USING PICTURES FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES AS IT WAS NOT AUTHORISED TO COVER THIS EVENT, THEREFORE IT IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED (Photo by - / PRESIDENT.IR / AFP)
A handout picture released by the official website of the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, shows him (L) and Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation chief Ali Akbar Salehi addressing journalists at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Gulf port city of Bushehr on January 13, 2015. Rouhani implicitly warned US lawmakers against adopting any new sanctions linked to Iran's controversial nuclear programme, saying they would fail as his country was beginning to exit the sanctions-era. AFP PHOTO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY WEBSITE / MOHAMMAD BERNO 
== RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY WEBSITE / MOHAMMAD BERNO " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo by MOHAMMAD BERNO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY / AFP)
epa03655165 (FILE) A file picture dated 21 August 2010 shows a general view of the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr, southern Iran. Media reports state on 09 April 2013 that an earthquake has struck near Bushehr, the site of Iran's nuclear power station. Currently there is no information on casualties.  EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH *** Local Caption *** 50783062
Mehdi Abrichamtchi (C), Peace and Security Committee Chairman of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) shows to journalists a secret nuclear site in Iran during a press conference on November 18, 2013 in Paris. Iran and six world powers meet in Geneva from November 20 for the third time since the election of President Hassan Rouhani to try to end the decade-old standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme.  AFP PHOTO / Marion Ruszniewski (Photo by Marion Ruszniewski / AFP)
A picture taken on November 10, 2019, shows workers on a construction site in Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start works for a second reactor at the facility. - Bushehr is Iran's only nuclear power station and is currently running on imported fuel from Russia that is closely monitored by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Russian contractors work at the Bushehr nuclear reactor site in 2007. The plant opened four years later. Bloomberg

They could, however, draw support from high-profile Democrats opposed to the deal such as Mr Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — both of whom were among four Democrats to vote against the original deal in 2015.

Mr Menendez went so far as to deliver an hour-long speech on the Senate floor last week urging the Biden administration to “exert more pressure on Iran” and questioning the wisdom of salvaging the agreement.

And Mr Cruz, who signed on to Mr Risch’s letter, said after the Wednesday briefing that Mr Biden’s only chance of success would be to continue the “maximum pressure campaign” instated under Mr Trump — which consisted of crippling sanctions on Iran.

Notably, the Biden administration has not removed any of Mr Trump’s major economic sanctions on Iran and has indicated it will not do so until an agreement is reached through the indirect talks in Vienna.

The State Department has, however, waived sanctions on Iran’s civilian nuclear programme in a technical step necessary to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“The Biden administration’s prepared to surrender everything,” Mr Cruz told reporters after the briefing.

“They desperately want a deal, and I don’t think there’s anything they’re unwilling to give to get a deal.

“Because they chose to pursue a hard-left policy of appeasement, the next Republican president will rip to shreds whatever disastrous deal they negotiate.”

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