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Top US Democrat warns Biden against 'clinging' to 2015 Iran nuclear deal

Robert Menendez, chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern over nuclear talks in hour-long speech
Bob Menendez
US Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez at the US Capitol in Washington on 2 February, 2022 (AFP)

A top Senate Democrat has warned that some US officials were "clinging" to the framework of the 2015 nuclear agreement for "nostalgia's sake", in a blistering rebuke of the Biden administration's handling of talks with Iran aimed at restoring the deal.

"At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?" Robert Menendez, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

"As someone who has followed Iran's nuclear ambition for the better part of three decades, I am here today to raise concerns about the current round of negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action," he added.

Menendez was one of the few Democratic lawmakers to oppose the 2015 nuclear deal and said many of the reservations he had at the time "are coming back to haunt us in the year 2022".

The New Jersey senator, who also objected to the Trump administration's 2018 decision to withdraw from the agreement, warned against a deal that would "mothball" Iran's nuclear infrastructure without requiring its complete dismantling.

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Under the 2015 agreement, all limits on Iran's production of nuclear material would expire in 2030.

Iran's underground economy

US officials have assessed that the time-frame in which Iran could produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb - the so-called "breakout time" - has also been significantly reduced from the one-year framework underpinning the 2015 agreement.

Re-entering the deal with a lower breakout time could pose challenges for the Biden administration domestically, after promising to achieve "a longer, stronger deal" in negotiations with Tehran.

Menendez questioned whether achieving such promises was "even feasible" today, and warned that the inroads Iran had made since the US departed the deal under Trump would make it difficult to turn back the clock.

"While the deal the US and our partners are nursing in Vienna would reverse technological advancement, the acquisition of knowledge, that is never reversible," he said.

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The lawmaker called on the Biden administration to exert greater pressure on Tehran and "vigorously" enforce US sanctions.

"It's time to start thinking out of the box and consider new strategies for rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and addressing its dangerous and nefarious activities," he said.

"These new efforts should include creative diplomatic initiatives, stricter sanctions enforcement, and a steely determination from Congress to back up President Biden's declaration that Iran will 'never get a nuclear weapon on my watch'."

Using slides to illustrate his point, Menendez highlighted Iran's ongoing sale of fuel to China - which last year were estimated at 350,000 and 650,000 barrels per day - as an area the US should target to deprive Tehran of funding.

"We must use our sanctions to crush the illicit, underground economy of Iranian oil shipments throughout the world," he said.

While the Biden administration says it is committed to the "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran, and has kept in place Trump-era sanctions, some analysts have questioned its commitment to strictly enforcing them.

Besides sales to China, Iran also resumed the cross-border sale of fuel to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

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