Hawkish senators make moves to take over Biden’s Iran policy
In June, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed donors at the AIPAC New Jersey Spring Leadership Dinner and declared that President Biden should halt efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and instead pursue a new approach. As Jewish Insider reported, Menendez declared “in the absence of hearing a plan in a classified setting, then I intend to create… legislation that will ultimately dictate what a plan should be.”
Despite the Biden administration going out of its way to cater to the whims of Menendez, including rhetoric calling for a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal that led to costly delays in negotiations during Biden’s first months in office, Menendez has continued to undermine the administration’s efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal. This was most apparent in February, when Menendez responded to forward progress in nuclear negotiations by declaring his opposition to restoring the JCPOA in a long-winded speech on the Senate floor, exacerbating doubts in Tehran about whether Biden could deliver on sanctions relief. Now, Menendez has followed through on his threat to “dictate” the terms of Biden’s Iran policy by introducing a new bill.
His latest legislation with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another dyed-in-the-wool Iran hawk, mandates that Biden detail a full strategy on Iran and establish a “task force” with a primary function of relaying intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program to Congress and the public every 120 days.
At first glance, the legislation could appear just duplicative and unnecessary. Much of the data the task force would forward to Congress is already publicly reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency every 90 days, while the IAEA has also reported major developments on Iran’s nuclear program in real time. The bill itself cites the IAEA’s own reports on Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium while mandating the task force relay this exact same information later in the bill. Moreover, setting aside the invaluable information provided by the IAEA, Sens. Menendez and Graham can and do routinely request and receive both classified and unclassified briefings on Iran from the State Department, White House, and intelligence officials. There’s no lack of information on Iran’s nuclear program, particularly if you are a U.S. senator.
However, there are plenty of indications that the legislation would not be used to enhance congressional and public knowledge, but to sabotage diplomatic efforts that can avert threats from Iran’s nuclear program. One such indication is that the task force would be required to report on “clandestine nuclear facilities, including nuclear facilities and activities discovered or reported by Israel or other allies or partners of the United States.”
Thus, the task force would not just report out a careful interagency assessment of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, but it would also be required to include information — including potentially raw intelligence — from parties that may have a strong interest in stoking U.S.-Iran conflict. Particularly given that the report would need to be submitted at least partially in unclassified form and on the State Department’s website, this requirement could open the door to both members of Congress — like Menendez and Graham — and outside groups beating the drums for war on the basis of cherry-picked and false intelligence.
Moreover, the requirement could complicate the IAEA’s efforts to monitor Iran’s nuclear program in real time. Tariq Rauf, the IAEA’s former nonproliferation policy chief, recognized the risk of this approach, telling Bloomberg “[a]dding intelligence assessments to the findings of the IAEA would serve to undermine the integrity of the agency’s reports as well as its independence.” Rauf continued, “The legislation runs the risk of damaging the international nuclear verification system by second guessing the IAEA, whose inspectors are the only ones that can carry out on-site intrusive inspections.”
Perhaps these concerns don’t rank highly to Menendez and Graham, given all they’ve done to tear apart an accord that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and created unprecedented access for the IAEA, but it should concern other legislators who think seriously about the risks of an unchecked Iranian nuclear program.
Outside observers have also provided plenty of confirmation that the effort is not a serious one, but an effort to jam Biden. Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the hub of efforts to sabotage Iran diplomacy, said “The bill represents an understanding that Congress is going to have a bigger role in Iran policy and craft what Iran policy looks like.”
Despite the fact that the bill requires the administration to send a “diplomatic strategy” to Congress, it somehow still fails to support negotiations with the most relevant actor in Iran. Instead, the administration is directed to engage with “partners and allies of the United States regarding the nuclear weapons and missile activities” of Iran. Such direction strongly hints that what Menendez and Graham are looking for is not a successful negotiation with Iran like the one Obama directed, but a doubling down on Trump’s failed maximum pressure or a bombing campaign that would be nothing short of a disaster for the United States and region as whole.
Biden has ceded too much ground to Menendez and his hawkish fellow-travelers on Iran. Biden failed to move swiftly to restore the Iran nuclear deal, refused to implement any humanitarian sanctions relief, adopted “longer and stronger” rhetoric that wasn’t feasible, and ruled out lifting the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that was put in place to tie his hands on Iran diplomacy.
Menendez should be happy, as he already got what he asked for. The problem is that Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than ever. Now, Menendez thinks he deserves the keys to the car even though he suggested that Biden drive it into a ditch. It’s time for Biden to take charge of Iran diplomacy and follow through on his commitments in restoring the Iran nuclear deal. If he fails, and Menendez and his allies get the chance to dictate, they’ll push us head over heels into war.