Question: How can the Biden administration implement a new nuclear agreement with Iran that is far more dangerous than the Obama administration’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement and avoid criticism of the agreement from the American public and Congress?
Answer: Negotiate a secret, oral nuclear agreement with Iran so there is nothing for the American people and Congress to see.
Several press outlets, including Haaretz, Axios and The Jerusalem Post, have confirmed this secret nuclear deal. The agreement reportedly is a set of unwritten “understandings” and is the result of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran that began in May, with Oman serving as a mediator.
Although Biden officials have repeatedly denied holding talks with Iran to reach a new nuclear deal, they also have criticized Israel for leaking details of the talks to the press.
The new nuclear deal has been described as an interim agreement but includes major U.S. concessions to Iran. They include “freezing” Iranian enrichment of uranium to 60% uranium-235, a dangerous concession that puts Iran two weeks away or less from producing weapons-grade uranium. Iran also will keep its nuclear infrastructure, including advanced uranium centrifuges, and would be permitted to continue to develop this technology.
Iran reportedly has agreed under the deal to stop its proxy groups from attacking U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq and to cooperate with IAEA investigations of its nuclear program. There were discussions of Iran halting military sales to Russia, but The Jerusalem Post reported on July 20 that this probably would not be part of the agreement.
The new agreement may include a U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange that would actually be U.S. ransom payments to Tehran to win the freedom of three American hostages – Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz – who are serving prison sentences on fabricated espionage charges. The prisoner release may not be part of the final agreement due to resistance from Iran.
In exchange for agreeing to the above requirements, Iran will receive over $20 billion in sanctions relief, which would come from the U.S. dropping its opposition to Iran accessing its frozen assets held in foreign banks. The U.S. also reportedly has agreed not to impose new sanctions on Iran.
Although it is unclear whether the new nuclear deal has been finalized, Iran already received partial sanctions relief under the agreement when the U.S. issued a sanctions waiver in mid-July, allowing Iraq to pay Iran for electricity via non-Iraqi banks. The U.S. stipulated that Iran could only use these funds for humanitarian purposes. However, since money is fungible, this restriction is meaningless.
Several factors appear to be behind the new secret, unwritten nuclear deal with Iran.
First, the Biden administration refuses to give up its obsession with reversing President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deeply flawed JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran.
Second, its efforts in 2021 and 2022 with European states, Russia and China to revive the JCPOA failed due to Iran’s refusal to negotiate in good faith.
And third, the formal written nuclear agreement that lifts most sanctions on Iran that Biden officials were seeking in 2021 and 2022 is no longer politically viable because of a surge in Iran’s belligerent behavior over the last 18 months, including major advances in its nuclear program that Tehran refuses to give up; Iran’s brutal, nationwide crackdown in response to mass protests over the killing of Mahsa Amini; selling attack drones and other weapons to Russia for its use in the Ukraine war; and attacks on almost two dozen oil tankers and other commercial ships since 2021.
So, to implement an agreement that would be both highly controversial and unpopular in the U.S., Biden officials are using deception to hide this agreement from the American people.
This subterfuge not only defies congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy, it is a clear violation of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), which requires that any nuclear agreement with Iran or agreement to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran be submitted to Congress for review. INARA also allows Congress to vote to disapprove any new nuclear deal with Iran.
There have been strong Congressional reactions to the secret, unwritten nuclear deal.
In a June 15, 2023, letter to President Biden, Congressman Michael McCaul, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned Biden officials against attempting to evade congressional oversight of a new nuclear deal with Iran and INARA and said, “any arrangement or understanding with Iran, even informal, requires submission to Congress.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said on June 15, “I’m sorely disappointed at Biden admin. for their willingness to continue working on a behind-closed-doors deal with Iran. It’s abhorrent if they’re releasing dollars to Iran which we know will go to violent extremist organizations.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked about the reported secret nuclear deal with Iran in a July 31 Newsmax TV interview, he said, “I think that any deal with Iran that doesn’t set back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is basically not worth it because it means nothing. They basically take what you give them, but they don’t set back. They don’t roll back the capacity to produce nuclear weapons or the components of nuclear weapons. So, you really get nothing for it.”
For President Biden’s critics, the secret, unwritten Iran nuclear deal is consistent with many other examples of his administration ignoring the law and Congress to achieve its policy objectives. This instance is much more serious since it locks in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at a high level and will provide Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief that it is certain to spend on supporting terrorism, missile and nuclear programs, and meddling in regional conflicts. At the same time, the agreement reportedly will do nothing to stop Iran from sending weapons to Russia to use in the war in Ukraine.
This naïve agreement is another sign of national security malpractice by this administration that will weaken American security and embolden our enemies. It is imperative that Congress act immediately on a bipartisan basis to stop President Biden’s secret, unwritten nuclear deal with Iran.
Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.