Biden administration officials assured senators at a Wednesday classified briefing that the U.S. would ramp up sanctions on Iran if needed as hopes dim for a diplomatic pathway on Tehran’s nuclear program, according to attendees.
The assurances came as lawmakers in both parties press the Biden administration to articulate a backup plan that could prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. U.S. officials had worked for months to revive the Obama-era denuclearization agreement with Tehran that Donald Trump ripped up in 2018, but the last of those discussions happened in March, one top lawmaker said.
“For all intents and purposes, there are no talks,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said after the briefing. “The question is whether leaving the door open to the potential deal … is something that’s desirable as a strategic position for the administration to say to the world, ‘We tried, here it is, they’re unwilling to do it.’”
Biden administration officials conveyed to senators that existing sanctions against Iran would be maintained, at a minimum. When asked if the administration is considering additional punitive measures as a way to curb Iran’s nuclear program, Menendez responded: “I would stay tuned.”
Senators who attended Wednesday’s briefing described a range of possible next steps for U.S. policy toward Iran, from continuing to search for a diplomatic solution to imposing new sanctions and huddling with partners in the region. President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel next month to two of those partner countries, Saudi Arabia and Israel, for talks on a wide range of issues, including Iran and global energy prices.
State Department officials either declined to comment or did not respond to questions about the briefing. Officials have previously said they have all the legal authorities they need to impose sanctions for both nuclear and non-nuclear activity, such as Iran’s support for terrorism in the region and its illicit oil sales.
Wednesday’s briefing featured Brett McGurk, the White House’s top Middle East official, and Rob Malley, the top envoy for the Iran talks, updating senators on what members of both parties say is the close-to-impossible task of turning back the clock on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
“There’s not a lot of clarity [on a] plan B,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). “Some of that is just a function of the fact that there aren’t a lot of great options here.”
Efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord suffered a setback earlier this year after Biden decided to maintain the terrorist designation for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian negotiators were demanding that the IRGC be removed from the U.S. government’s blacklist, but the administration refused unless Iran was willing to offer concessions on non-nuclear issues.
Menendez, who opposed the Obama administration’s deal, has already said publicly that Iran “now has enough uranium to produce a nuclear weapon” and has urged the White House to admit that a return to the original agreement is no longer the best path. Nearly all Republicans agree with him.
“I just don’t think it will meet the results that they think it’s going to meet,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said of reviving the 2015 pact. “All Iran is seeking is some short-term sanctions relief so they can invest more money in their military capabilities — not just their nuclear program.”
It’s not the first time that the Biden team’s Iran policy has faced bipartisan rebukes. Last month, a supermajority of senators voted in favor of a symbolic measure stating that the IRGC’s terrorist designation should be maintained and that any diplomatic agreement with Iran should also address its support for terrorism in the region.
Many Democrats, however, continue to believe that the only way to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions is to negotiate re-entry into the 2015 accord, which enforced restrictions on the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
“There is no backup. For people who think there’s some military option that’s feasible, they simply haven’t studied the facts on the ground,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the Biden administration’s biggest supporters on its Iran policy. “Diplomacy is the only viable path, and I have still yet to hear a single Republican or a single opponent of the [2015 deal] articulate a viable alternative path.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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