Hawkish Democrats Ramp Up Campaign Against Possible New Iran Deal

A letter led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer previews the talking points Iran hawks will use to undermine Joe Biden's push to get the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear deal.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., speaks to reporters on the House steps after a vote on Oct. 21, 2021. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

With expectations of a revived Iran nuclear deal growing, Iran hawks in Congress are positioning themselves to make U.S. reentry into the agreement a painful political ordeal, according to a draft letter circulating on Capitol Hill.

With President Joe Biden reportedly coming close to reviving the agreement, the letter telegraphs the opposition he could face from Congress. Such efforts would be a reprisal of the fight in 2015, when President Barack Obama worked to push through the original Iran nuclear deal and faced right-leaning pro-Israel forces in Congress — including Democrats — that tried to block it.

Led by conservative New Jersey Democrat and perennial obstructionist Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the letter lays out a policy on the nuclear deal that, rather than reviving Obama’s deal, would follow in the footsteps of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from the deal despite an international consensus that it was working to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

“We are deeply concerned about multiple provisions that reportedly may be contained in the final language of any agreement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” the pro-Israel Democrats wrote in the draft of the letter, which was obtained by The Intercept. “Concerningly, news accounts suggest that the agreement may suspend terrorism sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Development Fund and the National Iranian Oil Company, designated by the previous administration for supporting terrorism.”

For some defenders of the Iran deal on Capitol Hill, the letter makes specious arguments and stands as an affront to Democratic voters who made their views on the agreement clear. “The bottom line is Joe Biden was elected on an explicit commitment to rejoining the deal,” Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told The Intercept. “Biden himself has made the best available case for rejoining the Iran deal — one that has conclusively addressed most of the continuing complaints.”

“The bottom line is Joe Biden was elected on an explicit commitment to rejoining the deal.”

The letter — with nearly 30 Democratic signatories, according to Jewish Insider, which first reported its existence — lays out the arguments Iran hawks are poised to leverage against any forthcoming revival of the deal in the coming weeks. The draft, published below in full, airs complaints about how the U.S., under a new agreement, would treat sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its central bank as well as Russia’s role in facilitating the deal.

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers limited the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment and stockpiles as well as created the most robust monitoring mechanisms in the history of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, Iran got sanctions relief that was intended to begin its reintegration into the world financial system. In 2018, Trump withdrew from the agreement, reimposed sanctions, and took even harsher steps against Iran.

While Iran hawks in Washington and abroad cheered the withdrawal, security officials, nuclear experts, and U.S. allies warned that it would free Iran to ramp up its nuclear program. Eventually, with meaningful sanctions relief off the table and its economy squeezed to the breaking point, Iran did just that.

Their opposition to the revived deal aligns the conservative Democratic members of Congress with a constellation of foreign governments that hold sway in Washington, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and hard-liners in Israel.

Pro-Israel groups in Washington are likely to lend full-throated support to Gottheimer’s effort. The letter’s language closely mirrors the talking points that have been put forward by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the flagship Israel lobby group in D.C. AIPAC, which has been publicly lambasting the contours of an expected deal in recent weeks, tweeted its support for Gottheimer’s effort Wednesday morning.

Many of the letter’s expected Democratic signatories have received significant political boosts from AIPAC and its network of pro-Israel PACs this year. Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar narrowly fended off primary challenger Jessica Cisneros in May after receiving nearly $2 million from the lobby. And Rep. Haley Stevens, who received over $4 million from the group’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, ousted liberal Jewish Rep. Andy Levin, an Iran deal supporter, in a rare primary between sitting members in Michigan earlier this month. (Spokespeople for Cuellar and Stevens did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)

The political expediency of siding with Israel lobby groups on Iran diplomacy, though, is not clear-cut. Members of Congress who have championed the deal have also found political success. Last week, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler ousted fellow Rep. Carolyn Maloney in another member-on-member primary. The divide on Iran featured prominently in the race: Nadler was the only Jewish member of the House from New York to support the original deal, while Maloney, who has a history of Islamophobic actions, voted in opposition.

While the deal’s skeptics may undermine the perceived political benefit of a new deal, there is little indication that they have the numbers necessary to prevent the administration from reentering the agreement.


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While Biden can reenter the deal without congressional approval, the Gottheimer letter requested that Biden submit to congressional approval of any renegotiated agreement — something Republicans, like Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have been clamoring for.

Many of the reported U.S. concessions on the table now would not affect congressionally controlled aspects of the U.S.-Iran relationship nor increase U.S. business with Iran. Instead, they would ease enforcement of certain sanctions against non-U.S. parties that do business with Iran.

The steps became necessary when Trump, in a naked attempt to block future diplomacy with Iran, designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization in 2019. American negotiators have insisted that disputes over that designation are separate from the issues being negotiated in the nuclear deal, while Iranian representatives have insisted that the unprecedented designation remain part of discussions. Because of the IRGC’s deep involvement in the Iranian economy, terror sanctions against the group could block virtually all business with the country.

Gottheimer is no stranger to marshaling dissent against the popular priorities of Democratic presidents. Last year, Gottheimer led a successful effort to derail Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda. As negotiations over the pared-back Inflation Reduction Act ended, Gottheimer also attempted to undermine that process over provisions addressing a tax deduction used by the extremely wealthy. In that case, he ultimately failed to muster the votes necessary to obstruct the legislation.

Read the full text of the draft letter:

Dear Mr. President,

We are writing to respectfully request that Administration [sic] provide Congress with the full text of any proposal to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including any side agreements, and consult with Congress prior to reentering the agreement.

We are deeply concerned about multiple provisions that reportedly may be contained in the final language of any agreement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.

For example, the new agreement reportedly states that, “Non-U.S. persons doing business with Iranian persons that are not on the [U.S. sanctions list] will not be exposed to sanctions merely as a result of those Iranian persons engage in separate transactions involving Iranian persons on the [U.S. sanctions list] (including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its officials, or its subsidiaries or affiliates).”

While we commend you for refusing to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) — one of our most powerful tools used to compel state sponsors of terror to change — this move creates a troubling precedent. We are concerned that it could significantly dilute the effectiveness terrorism-related sanctions on the IRGC, Iran’s paramilitary terror arm. It provides that organization a pathway for sanctions evasion.

If the regime in Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, has proven anything, it’s that it can’t be trusted. The IRGC has directly, or through its proxies, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Ansar Allah (Houthis), Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and scores of Shiite militias in Iraq killed hundreds of Americans, and attacked our bases and our allies in the region.

Strengthened with an estimated one trillion dollars in sanctions relief over a decade, Iran and the IRGC would be an enormous danger to Americans at home and abroad, and to our allies. Additionally, it has been reported that under this proposed deal, Russia would be the de facto judge of compliance and the keeper of Iran’s enriched uranium, without any oversight mechanisms by the United States or our European partners.

Additionally, we strongly urge you [sic] Administration not to permit Russia to be the recipient of Iran’s enriched uranium nor to have the right to conduct nuclear work with the Islamic Republic, including a $10 billion contract to expand Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. We should not let war criminal Vladmir Putin be the guarantor of the deal or the keeper of massive amounts of Iran’s enriched uranium. Iran supports the illegal war in Ukraine and has been supplying Russia with drones used to kill Ukrainians. Iran has also offered to help Russia evade sanctions through its manifold channels of illicit finance around the globe. Iran, Russia, and China have increased their cooperation on diplomatic, economic, and defense fronts, including high-level meetings and joint naval drills earlier this year.

Amid Iran-sponsored terror plots to assassinate former U.S. officials and iranian-American dissidents on American soil, this is no time to remove, suspend, or dilute U.S. terrorism sanctions on Iran or the IRGC. As Secretary Blinken said in his confirmation hearing, America should do “everything possible, including the toughest possible sanctions, to deal with Iranian support for terrorism.” Asked specifically if it is in the U.S. interest to maintain terrorism sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and the National Iranian Oil Company, Blinken answered in the affirmative. Concerningly, news accounts suggest that the agreement may suspend terrorism sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Development Fund and the National Iranian Oil Company, designated by the previous administration for supporting terrorism.

Therefore, we urge you not to return to any deal with Iran prior to releasing the full text of the agreement and any side agreements to the Congress, and providing us with an in-depth briefing on the matter, and consulting with all key stakeholders. We must address the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, stand strong against terrorists, and protect American values and our allies.

Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to receiving your expeditious response.


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