President Biden Faces a Washington Divided over Iran

Although President Joe Biden has expressed an interest in reorienting US foreign policy away from the Middle East, Iran continues to be an issue that his administration must address. This week, members of the Biden Administration’s diplomatic and national security team indicated that Washington has taken its diplomatic efforts to key US partners and allies; at the same time, they have also opened direct lines of communication with Iran in an effort to lay the groundwork for the much tougher negotiations to come. The Biden Administration is trying to walk a fine line by balancing the need for direct negotiations, and likely some compromises, with Iran while maintaining economic and diplomatic pressure.

The United States and its European partners are reportedly planning to censure Iran at the next meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Washington also decided to resume a working group with Israel in a move that can only be viewed as a way to coordinate pressure on Tehran. These moves, which are likely seen as hostile acts by the Iranian government, have accompanied other decisions that are sure to rankle Iran hawks in Washington. For example, the Biden Administration reversed the Trump Administration’s effort at the United Nations to “snap back” broad international sanctions on Tehran.

Negotiating with Iran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was always going to be difficult, but the Biden Administration is likely to face committed and unified opposition to any effort to rethink US-Iran relations. Already on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans have largely retreated to two camps, one that wants a return to the JCPOA and one that vehemently opposes any diplomatic outreach. Just this week, House and Senate Republicans introduced bills and resolutions to prevent or discourage President Biden from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal or offer sanctions relief to Tehran. House Republicans introduced the Iran Nuclear Verification Act (H.R. 1203) and the Constraining Human Rights Offenders in the Middle East (CHROME) Act (H.R. 1231) to box the administration in by prohibiting US compliance with the JCPOA. Other Republicans on the Hill sent letters and offered nonbinding resolutions like S. Res. 72/H. Res. 157 (text of the resolution here) to express the sense of the Republican Party that any sanctions relief is unacceptable. Yet others are seeking to hold a public hearing to illustrate the extent of Tehran’s malign activities.

With Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass legally binding legislation dictating President Biden’s Iran policy. But Republicans are waging the battle in the court of public opinion, much as they did when Biden served as vice president to Barack Obama. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), the Republicans’ third ranking member in the House, tested out this tactic when she told a virtual meeting of the Reagan Foundation that the JCPOA was the single worst deal that United States ever signed. Furthermore, she appealed to US support for Israel, arguing that a return to the JCPOA—or any diplomatic agreement like it—was an “unacceptable” threat to Israel.

For his part, Biden does have the support of most Democratic lawmakers. While Republicans were introducing legislation to make diplomacy more difficult, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) reintroduced his Iran Diplomacy Act (S. 434) to ensure full implementation of the JCPOA. Others, like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), went before the public to argue in favor of US diplomacy with Iran. At a virtual conference this week, Rep. Meeks expressed support for efforts to rejoin the JCPOA, acknowledging that Iran had been in compliance with the deal before the Trump Administration reneged on its commitments. Senator Murphy echoed that sentiment at the Council on Foreign Relations and he argued for a return to compliance by all sides, with the United States offering sanctions relief to reach a stronger nuclear deal.

Battle lines are being clearly drawn and President Biden will undoubtedly face immense pressure from the most hawkish elements in Washington. But in order to achieve a diplomatic cold peace between the United States and Iran, he and his team will have to overcome these efforts and stand by their campaign promises to return to compliance with the groundbreaking nuclear accord.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Reaffirming Importance of Upholding Democracy, Human Rights, and Rule of Law. Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), introduced H. Res. 137 in an attempt to place the promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as a key pillar of US foreign policy. Under Meeks’s leadership, the HFAC marked up and passed this resolution as well as McCaul’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act that he reintroduced earlier this year.

Libya Stabilization Act. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) spearheaded a bipartisan and bicameral effort to advance US policy in Libya toward the goal of ending the conflict there. H.R. 1228 and S. 379 are companion bills, meaning they are nearly identical, though the House version is longer than that offered by Coons and his fellow senators. ACW explored the Libya Stabilization Act after it was introduced during the last Congress.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Chairman, Ranking Member of HFAC Call for Magnitsky Sanctions on Lebanon. Reps. Meeks and McCaul again teamed up when they sent a letter to President Biden urging the administration to levy sanctions, under the Global Magnitsky Act, on any members of the Lebanese government or of Hezbollah who were involved in the assassination of activist Lokman Slim.

Bipartisan Group in Senate Wants Biden to Reverse Recognition of Morocco’s Claim over Western Sahara. Senators Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) mobilized 25 of their colleagues to send a bipartisan letter to President Biden asking him to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara.

House Democrats Seek Information about Biden’s Yemen Policy. On February 24, 41 House Democrats wrote to President Biden and his secretaries of State and Defense seeking clarity about his administration’s policies toward Yemen.

Speaker of the House Pelosi Confers with Israeli Prime Minister. According to press reports, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) held a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. The two spoke about regional security, Speaker Pelosi said on Twitter, including a “just, stable, and enduring” two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

3) Nominations

UN Ambassador, Energy Secretary Confirmed by Senate. On February 23, the full Senate voted to confirm Linda Thomas-Greenfield as both US ambassador to the United Nations and as Washington’s representative to the body’s Security Council. Two days later, the Senate voted to confirm former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy, a role that will involve interacting with Middle East states on energy-related issues.

CIA Director Nominee Testifies before Senate Intelligence Committee. On February 24, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a confirmation hearing for President Biden’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. “Bill” Burns. A longtime State Department official, Burns would be the first career diplomat to serve as CIA director, should he win confirmation. In keeping with Washington’s focus on great power competition between the United States and adversaries like Russia and China, many of the questions posed to Ambassador Burns were outside the scope of the Middle East. However, a few senators on the committee did raise issues pertinent to the region, including threats from non-state violent extremist groups and from state actors like Iran. In short, Burns asserted that Iran can never have a nuclear weapon, but he also argued that the United States needs a “whole of government” approach to ensure that all sides return to compliance with the JCPOA and to strive to broaden that agreement to include other contentious issues like Iran’s ballistic missile program.

4) Hearings and Briefings

Chairman Meeks Talks Israel, Palestine, and Regional Peace. All last week, the Brookings Institution hosted a virtual conference on the Middle East in the President Biden era. On February 24, the conference hosted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) who, as was detailed above, offered his thoughts on US policy toward Iran. Beyond US-Iran relations, Meeks laid out his vision for US policy toward Israel, Palestine, and peaceful solutions for reaching peace between the two, as well as broader Arab-Israeli peace. First, Rep. Meeks called on the Biden Administration to work in a bipartisan manner to build on the so-called Abraham Accords initiated during the Trump Administration. He explained his position toward Israel, a country he defended nearly uncritically. To Meeks, Israel has the right to defend itself and, though he said he opposes annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, he refused to entertain the possibility of conditioning the massive yearly US assistance package to Israel on Israel’s human rights record or its attempts to undermine the very two-state solution Meeks professes to support. As ACW’s Khalil Jahshan noted, Rep. Meeks’s remarks were an example of the unconditional support Israel enjoys from US policy makers, one that pushes the prospects of peace further away.

Senator Murphy Explores US Relations with the GCC. In addition to his remarks on Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations’ virtual webinar, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) talked more broadly about US foreign policy in the Middle East. He openly questioned why, after three decades of significant change in the region, US policy toward Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states remains virtually unchanged. Furthermore, he opined that the current pillars of Washington’s engagement with states in the region (e.g., military cooperation and arms sales) and its unwillingness to challenge political oppression in GCC states is unsustainable for the United States. Much of what Murphy would discuss was more thoroughly examined in his recent op-ed for Foreign Affairs titled “America’s Middle East Policy is Outdated and Dangerous.”

Building a 21st-Century Foreign Policy. Beyond Iran, Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) broadly explored the future of US foreign policy and national security interests, including support for Israel and threats from violent extremism in the Middle East during the aforementioned Reagan Foundation event. Along with her remarks about US policy toward Iran, Cheney explained how she viewed US-Israel cooperation as a “prerequisite” for promoting US security interests in the region. She argued that in order to protect and strengthen the US relationship with Israel, it is imperative that the United States oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement because, in her view, it is “anti-Semitic”— despite civil rights organizations and the US courts determining that participation in the movement is constitutionally protected free speech. Cheney also argued for a robust US military presence in Iraq and Syria.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Holds First Calls with Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. After weeks of speculation that President Biden had snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by not calling him in the early days after his inauguration, Biden held his first call with Netanyahu. According to a readout published by the White House, the president and prime minister discussed Biden’s longtime support for Israel as well as the need for both countries to cooperate on countering regional security challenges and the perceived threats posed by Iran. In addition, President Biden raised the importance of pursuing peace between Israelis and the Palestinians under Israeli military occupation.

A few days later, President Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the first such communication with the leader of any Arab state. According to the White House’s description of the call, the pair talked about the recent attacks in Iraq, and Biden—a key supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq—expressed his support for Iraq’s sovereignty and independence. Lastly, Biden spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia to discuss, according to the White House press release, the war in Yemen, the release of imprisoned activists, and US-Saudi security relations. However, it was reported that the true purpose of the call was to discuss the US intelligence community’s declassified report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that is expected to implicate the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the decision to order Khashoggi’s assassination.

2) Department of State

Acting Assistant Secretary Hood Discusses Middle East Economies. On February 23, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood participated in an online webinar to discuss US economic development priorities in the Middle East. According to Hood, those priorities include addressing job creation, resolving gender inequality, and overcoming the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Hood highlighted the problems facing economies in the region, noting that a lack of trust and depressed socioeconomic development have left many in the booming youth population with dimming prospects for good jobs.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Amr at AHLC Virtual Meeting. Hady Amr, the deputy assistant secretary for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, participated in a virtual meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee on the Palestinian economy. During the event, Amr told his colleagues that the United States is committed to providing economic and humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza for various reasons, including to help preserve the prospects of a two-state solution.

Blinken Holds Calls with Egypt, Israel, and Gulf Arab States. While President Biden conducted telephone diplomacy, Secretary of State Blinken was busy fielding calls from his foreign counterparts. Blinken held calls with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi. In addition, on February 25, Secretary Blinken had conversations with the foreign ministers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In every case, Blinken spoke about the importance of bilateral relations with these officials’ states. However, the State Department’s readouts indicate that the secretary also raised uncomfortable topics with both Israel’s and Egypt’s top diplomats.

Blinken Announces Intent to Join UNHRC. In addition to his diplomatic outreach, Secretary Blinken announced efforts that he and the Biden Administration are undertaking to reverse the previous administration’s policies toward the United Nations. Blinken said that the United States would seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) with the aim of putting human rights back at the center of US foreign policy. Should Washington secure a spot on the committee starting in 2022, Blinken noted that the United States would use its perch to hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes. Blinken has also made clear that US participation in the UNHRC would also afford the administration the opportunity to reorient the body’s work away from Israel and the abuses it is accused of perpetrating, stemming from its occupation of Palestinian territories.

Special Envoy Lenderking Takes Tour of Gulf Countries. The Biden Administration’s special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, embarked on a multistate trip to the Arabian Gulf this week that is expected to take him to “several” Gulf Arab states. According to reports, Lenderking has already visited with Saudi and Yemeni officials in Riyadh before traveling to Oman to meet with officials there.

3) Office of National Intelligence

DNI Haines Releases Report on Khashoggi Assassination: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released an intelligence assessment that implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in the 2018 assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. After the release, the Biden Administration levied sanctions and visa restrictions on over 70 Saudi citizens for their roles in Khashoggi’s murder or for targeting Saudi journalists and activists more broadly. However, the administration stopped short of punishing MbS—for fear of rupturing the US-Saudi relationship—and this drew House Speaker Pelosi to support the administration’s moves. A diverse group including Reps. Adam Schiff (D-California), Gregory Meeks (D-New York), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Andy Kim (D-New Jersey), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) criticized MbS and called for some form of action against the crown prince. Omar went the farthest, announcing that she will introduce legislation to sanction bin Salman.

4) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks with Crown Prince MbS. On February 18, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III held a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) who, in addition to being crown prince, is also the country’s defense minister. According to the Pentagon’s readout of the call, Secretary Austin expressed support for Saudi Arabia’s security and called Riyadh a pillar of regional stability. The secretary reiterated to MbS the Biden Administration’s change of policy toward the Saudi-led war in Yemen and he thanked MbS—the person who spearheaded the Saudi war effort in Yemen—for his commitment to a political settlement to that war.

Biden Takes Military Action in Syria. President Biden ordered the US military to carry out an airstrike on positions held by an Iranian-linked militia in Syria in retaliation for recent attacks on US military personnel in neighboring Iraq. There are serious questions about the constitutionality of conducting such air strikes, but at least some lawmakers on Capitol Hill applauded the move.

Biden later sent a justification to Congress to explain his use of force. While some lawmakers accepted his rationale, others maintained that these strikes were legally questionable under past authorizations for the use of military force and chafed at the administration’s failure to consult Congress before striking a country not at war with the United States.

5) Department of Homeland Security

Jewish Organizations Ask Biden Administration to Reverse “Made in Israel” Policy. Six progressive Jewish groups penned a letter to the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, asking the Biden Administration to reverse the Trump Administration’s policy of recognizing products made in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “Made in Israel.

III. Judicial Branch

US Citizens File Lawsuit against Saudi Arabia for Pensacola Base Shooting. US-Saudi relations under President Biden are already being tested, but now Riyadh faces more legal scrutiny that threatens to reveal whether the kingdom had a role in the latest Saudi attack on American citizens. Families of victims of the December 2019 shooting at the Pensacola, Florida military base have filed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, citing, among other statutes, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The suit names the Saudi government as an accomplice to the Saudi military trainee who carried out the attack.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here