United States mid-term Congressional elections due November 8 may bring to Washington more opponents of talks aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 35 of 100 Senate seats, are up for grabs, with the Democrats currently holding a majority in both houses, 220 against 210 in the House, and a waver-thin 51-50 in the Senate with the vote of the vice-president.

While some Democrats are skeptical of President Joe Biden’s approach to Iran, and not all Republicans backed President Donald Trump in leaving the 2015 nuclear deal, Democrats broadly back the Biden administration’s approach.

While a shift in the composition of Congress would be in line with a common mid-term swing against any administration, analysts are reluctant to make predictions. There are a swathe of contentious issues including rising prices, the Supreme Court and abortion rights, and continuing exposure of Trump’s role in the January 6 Capitol Hill riots.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price reiterated Tuesday there was no specific timeline for talks over the Iran nuclear deal, with Washington’s approach depending on a “technical assessment of Iran’s nuclear program versus non-proliferation benefits” of the 2015 deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

US-Iran engagement is expected to resume after Biden’s July 13-16 Middle East trip. Challenges reportedly remain in bridging differences over sanctions, including the business operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which the US included in 2019 in its list of ‘foreign terrorist organizations.’ Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian again raised Tuesday during a trip to Tehran by his Qatari counterpart, what he said was a US failure to give Tehran assurances that it would not impede Iran’s access to the world economy if the JCPOA were revived and that it would not again quit the agreement.

Awaiting decisions

Following last week’s unsuccessful ‘proximity’ talks between Iran and the US in Qatar, the White House special Iran envoy Rob Malley told National Public Radio Tuesday that “the discussion that really needs to take place now is in Iran.”

But if the US leadership awaits decisions in Tehran, there are also suggestions – including from Sina Azodi of the Atlantic Council – that the Iranian leadership awaits developments in the US, specifically with the mid-term elections.

Having survived nearly four years of US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions, Iran is wary of further upsets that would result from the lifting and subsequent reimposition of sanctions. Even short of the 2024 US presidential election, Republicans’ capture of Congress could diminish Tehran’s belief in the advantages of applying the JCPOA and so complicate Biden’s efforts to restore the agreement.

Congressional review

Among Republicans touting a more assertive Congressional role over Iran, Gabriel Noronha, special advisor for Iran 2019-21 under President Donald Trump, argued in a piece in The Hill in late June for strengthening the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), passed 2015 which allowed a 60-day congressional review of any nuclear deal with Iran. Noronha argued that “a new Iran agreement” should “proceed” only with a majority vote in the Senate.

Narounha wrote this would “will help strengthen US negotiators’ position at future talks and help ensure that negotiators do not get so invested in sealing a deal that they cave to the Iranians at the finish line.” It would also “promote the permanency of any future deal.”

In a series of tweets in on July 5, Narounha highlighted various moves in the House of Representatives to strengthen the INARA, including efforts to “close the various loopholes the administration could use to avoid submitting the deal to Congress…”

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