The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden will find that Iran is not the only constraint on its options as it seeks a negotiated return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The administration will also find its hands tied by a nearly forgotten law enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2015: the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or INARA.
Designed by a Republican Congress to permit oversight of what had been a secretive negotiating process, INARA granted Congress the opportunity to review, and potentially disapprove of, former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. While INARA didn’t stop the deal, it remains the law of the land. The Act mandates congressional review — and provides for potential disapproval — of not just the JCPOA, but any “agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran … regardless of the form it takes.” Further, the Act prohibits the extension of sanctions relief during the 30-day period the law sets aside for congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran.
Thus, the Biden administration will face two obstacles as it seeks to revive the JCPOA. The first has been widely noted: Iran is violating the agreement, and bringing Tehran back into compliance will not be easy. The second obstacle, rarely mentioned, will be INARA.
To be once again compliant with the JCPOA, Iran will need to dispose of the excess enriched uranium it has produced, which is now more than ten times the amount permitted. The same is true for uranium that has been enriched to higher levels than allowed. Ditto for prohibited centrifuge cascades and the advanced centrifuges it has installed. Harder still, Tehran must provide better responses to verification concerns than the ones the International Atomic Energy Agency recently pronounced “unsatisfactory” and “not technically credible.” Resolving all these issues will take months.
Further, it is not clear that Iran is willing to return to full compliance. Its stated demands are not just that Biden lift all economic sanctions imposed on Iran during the Trump administration, but also that the United States provide compensation for the economic benefits of the deal denied to Iran by Trump’s policies. With Iranian presidential elections looming in June, it will be hard for the regime to walk away from this demand. Its only leverage for obtaining compensation will be to hold out on returning to full compliance.
To its credit, the Biden administration has recognized that with so much uncertainty, it would be foolhardy to simply lift all of former President Donald Trump’s sanctions and hope that Iran will immediately return to full compliance. Instead, the administration appears intent on negotiating a set of reciprocal measures with Tehran under which sanctions will be eased as Iran comes into compliance. But this is precisely where INARA restricts Biden’s options.
If the Biden administration agrees with Iran on a pathway for returning to the nuclear deal, INARA will require that agreement to be submitted for congressional review, with the prospect of votes in both congressional chambers on whether to reject the agreement. Unless the administration is prepared to defy the statute, its only alternative for avoiding congressional review of its policy will be to unilaterally lift sanctions and trust Iran to reciprocate by coming back into full compliance itself.
Even if the Biden administration manages to finesse this aspect of the law, it will not be free of INARA. The Act further requires the president to submit a compliance certification to Congress every 90 days confirming that, among other things, “Iran is transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing the agreement.” Trump stopped submitting these certifications when he withdrew from the agreement, but if Biden rejoins the Iran deal, INARA will require him to resume submitting them.
Given how hard it will be for Iran to return to full compliance, it’s not clear how Biden will be able to make this certification initially, even if Iran tries diligently to comply. And if Tehran doesn’t try to fully comply, Biden certainly won’t be able to make the certification.
Absent a certification by the end of any one of the 90-day periods, INARA will provide congressional Republicans the option to force a vote—in both the Senate and House—on legislation mandating the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran. These votes would take place under so-called expedited procedures, which ensure floor votes even over the objections of the majority leadership of either chamber.
Some in Congress are sure to call for reimposition of U.S. sanctions if Biden’s policy does not produce obvious results, and INARA will give them a mechanism to force the issue to a vote.
When Obama presented his nuclear deal to Congress under INARA in 2015, it was opposed by all Republicans, 25 House Democrats, and four Senate Democrats. Given the narrow margins in the newly elected Congress, Biden will need to command stronger support than that to prevent Congress from passing legislation to upend his Iran policy.
For all these reasons, the Biden administration will likely find it challenging indeed to develop a post-Trump strategy toward Iran that can pass muster with both Tehran and the U.S. Congress.
Stephen Rademaker is senior of counsel at Covington & Burling and a former assistant secretary of state. The views expressed are the author's own.