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'We can't stay quiet': House Democrats voice concern over Iran nuclear talks

Group of 18 lawmakers raised concerns about the negotiations to outright opposition to reviving the 2015 deal
US Congressman Josh Gottheimer speaks on Iran negotiations at a news conference on Capitol Hill, 6 April 2022 in Washington DC
US Congressman Josh Gottheimer speaks on Iran negotiations at a news conference on Capitol Hill, 6 April 2022 in Washington (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

A group of House Democrats have raised concerns over the Biden administration's ongoing efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, exposing cracks within the party as Washington attempts to finalise an agreement with Tehran.

Five Democratic representatives held a press conference on Wednesday to publicly speak out about the pact, and another 13 House members signed onto a press release summarising misgivings with reported facets of the deal being crafted by world powers in Vienna. 

Led by Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia, lawmakers at the presser presented varying degrees of discomfort with the possibility of a revived Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"We have a variety of concerns about the negotiations all the way on the spectrum of outright opposition to reentering the deal," Congresswoman Luria said during Wednesday's news conference.

"We understand that, while the recent negotiations have not concluded, we feel that we can't stay quiet about the unacceptable and deeply troubling turn that these talks have reportedly taken."

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While the lawmakers had different concerns, from wanting a better deal for the US to opposing an agreement altogether, among their chief concerns were reports that the US was considering lifting the foreign terrorist organisation designation (FTO) on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC is an elite branch of the Iranian military made up of roughly 125,000 members, and it was designated as an FTO by the former Trump administration.

"Together, we must address the threat of a nuclear armed Iran stand up their terrorist activities against the US and our allies," Josh Gottheimer said during the press conference.

"We cannot treat one one of our most powerful diplomatic tools, which we use to get cold-blooded killers and the terrorist business as a cheap bargaining chip," he added, referring to the IRGC designation.

Luria and Gottheimer were a part of a group of 12 House Democrats and nine Republicans who last month sent a letter to the Biden administration saying they would likely oppose the Iran nuclear deal that is currently being negotiated.

Former President Donald Trump nixed the multilateral pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018 and started piling sanctions on the Iranian economy as part of his "maximum pressure" campaign.

In response, Iran began loosening its commitments to the pact.

Democrats becoming more vocal in opposition

While Republicans have been the most vocal members of Congress opposed to a return to the accord, a growing number of prominent Democrats have also taken opposition to the agreement in recent months.

Senator Bob Menendez, who serves as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was opposed to Trump's withdrawal from the deal, but last month criticised the ongoing negotiations, saying that Washington was clinging to the agreement for "nostalgia's sake".

Even with the growing congressional opposition to the agreement, it is unlikely that Congress would be able to block the implementation of the deal.

However, first-term Congressman Ritchie Torres said on Tuesday during a conversation with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that "a majority in both the House and the Senate" would oppose an agreement if brought to a vote.

The original 2015 deal was rejected in the House by a 269-162 margin and in the Senate by a 56-42 majority, but that was not enough to override a veto by former President Barack Obama.

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Dylan Williams, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at J-Street, a Jewish advocacy group, said the dissenting Democrats "should stand with the overwhelming majority of Americans, including Jewish Americans," in support of Biden's attempt to revive the accord.

"At a critical moment for President Biden's foreign policy, it is deeply disappointing to see a handful of House Democrats criticize the president’s important efforts to restore the limits on Iran’s nuclear program that Donald Trump abandoned. 

"If President Biden's diplomacy succeeds, it will dramatically reduce Iran's nuclear activities and put them back under rigid inspections and monitoring - while maintaining key sanctions on Iran's malign regional activities. It will make the US and our allies safer and head off a crisis that could lead us to another disastrous, costly war in the Middle East - a war that the American people certainly do not want."

Iran and the US entered into the eighth round of negotiations aimed at reviving the nuclear accord late last year in Vienna, Austria.

In the past few months, both sides had signalled that a deal was imminent, however a few sticking points still remain.

The talks are currently on pause, and Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday that the country's representatives would only return to Vienna to finalise an agreement to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, with the last steps dependent on Washington.

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