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Iran deal: Democratic senators endorse efforts to revive agreement

Letter signed by 27 Democrats says restoring the deal should be an 'early pressing national security' for Joe Biden
Former US President Trump nixed the nuclear deal in 2018 (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

More than two dozen Democratic senators have voiced support for the Iran nuclear deal, endorsing the "compliance for compliance" approach to revive the agreement, which would ensure sanctions relief for Tehran if it lives up to its commitments under the pact.

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday, 27 lawmakers - led by Senator Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy - welcomed indirect talks with Iran that are set to resume in Vienna later this week.

"While the damage of the last four years has left our country facing numerous challenges across the globe, there is no question that one of your early pressing national security priorities should be to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to address the threat of Iran's nuclear program," the letter said. 

"As such, we are encouraged that indirect talks are underway in Vienna aimed at reviving the nuclear agreement."

The JCPOA saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

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Former President Donald Trump nixed the agreement and unleashed a flood of sanctions on various Iranian industries, businesses and individuals as part of his maximum pressure campaign.

In response, Iran has been loosening commitments to the agreement and enriching uranium beyond the limits set by the pact, bringing the country closer to amassing enough nuclear material to build a weapon. Iranian officials say they do not aim to acquire nuclear bombs.

In their letter, the senators rebuked Trump's maximum pressure strategy and portrayed it as a failure, citing Iran's expanding nuclear programme.

"President Trump's decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and pursue a 'maximum pressure' strategy not only failed to yield results but has brought Iran closer to the capacity to develop nuclear weapons," the lawmakers said.

The senators endorsed lifting sanctions on Iran if Tehran is willing to honour the limitations on its nuclear programme imposed by the agreement.

"Should Iran be willing to return to compliance with the limitations set by the JCPOA, the United States should be willing to rejoin the deal and provide the sanctions relief required under the agreement," the lawmakers said.

Menendez-Graham letter

Tuesday's statement, which was signed by key senators, including Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, and Elizabeth Warren, comes weeks after 15 Democrats joined Republicans in signing a letter supported by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC that indirectly criticised the nuclear deal.

The AIPAC-backed letter called on Biden to address Iran's regional behaviour and ballistic missile programme in any future agreement - issues that go beyond the scope of the JCPOA.

It was led by Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a hawkish pro-Trump Republican.

"Looking ahead, we strongly believe that you should use the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools in concert with our allies on the United Nations Security Council and in the region to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and meaningfully constrains its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program," the Menendez-Graham letter said.

In contrast, the Democratic senators on Tuesday called for follow-on negotiations to address these issues after restoring the nuclear deal.

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Iranian officials, who accuse Washington of militarising the Middle East with weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, say the country's "defence" and foreign policy are not up for discussion with the United States.

One senator, Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, signed both letters.

Republicans have been vehemently opposed to efforts to restore the JCPOA. "The United States must not relinquish its leverage over the Iranian regime just to return to the JCPOA, a severely flawed agreement that undermines our national security interests due to its arbitrary sunsets and limited scope," four leading Republicans on powerful Senate committees wrote to Biden last week.

Biden has said he seeks to restore the agreement, which was signed in 2015 under President Barack Obama when he was vice president. But Tehran and Washington have been at an impasse over how to revive the deal.

On Tuesday, Tehran announced that it will further breach the deal and increase uranium enrichment in response to a suspected Israeli covert attack that caused a power outage at Natanz nuclear plant.

The White House has denied America's involvement in the incident.

Despite the spike in tensions, nuclear talks that started last week are scheduled to continue in Vienna on Thursday.

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