Democratic Senator Ben Cardin has assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a time of heightened debate over US Iran policy.
Sen. Cardin said on Thursday that the US is in a “much more dangerous situation” now because Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, although he opposed it at the time.
“From what I’ve been told,” he said, “Iran is just not interested” in a deal. “You’ve got to figure out, where do you go from this day forward?”
Cardin was one of only four Democrats in the Senate to have opposed the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal. He argued that it allowed the regime in Tehran to get “too close” to nuclear weapons “under a legal path.”
He became less skeptical, however, after the IAEA confirmed in periodic reports that Iran was in compliance.
The Maryland Senator has taken over the influential Foreign Relations Committee at a critical time for Iran policy. The Biden administration has been in secret talks with the Islamic Republic for some time and many in Washington believe an informal deal looms on the horizon.
Cardin’s view of such a deal would carry weight (and procedural significance) on the Capitol. It’s hard to gauge his view, though, as he seems to have made few substantive comments on the issue.
In 2015, Cardin had a key role in helping President Obama to get his nuclear deal through congress, despite voting against the deal himself. Working closely with the Republican Senator Bob Corker, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Cardin managed to get a bipartisan deal to give Congress the power to review the administration’s agreement. The law is called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) and was a escape hatch for Congress in face of former President Barack Obama’s decision not to make the JCPOA a treaty, subject to Senate approval.
Interestingly enough, back then like right now, Cardin replaced Bob Menendez after the US Department of Justice indicted Menendez on federal corruption charges.
Cardin is widely believed to be less hawkish than Menendez. Still, he has advocated “maximum pressure on Iran’ as a means to get another agreement after Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 deal.
“The only way to permanently deal with [Iran's nuclear program] is an agreement,” he said in December 2021. “The only way you can get there is through Maximum Pressure on Iran. Maximum Pressure on Iran."
Cardin was one of the two sponsors of a legislation (with the Republican Senator Pat Toomey) that proposed more sanctions for Iran over an alleged plot to kidnap the dissident journalist Masih Alinejad from the US.
Some Iranian-American activists have already started to lobby Cardin to back the MAHSA Act, which targets the offices of the President and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, and which passed the House on September 12, 2023.
It is likely that Cardin supports the MAHSA Act, not least because human rights seem to hold a special place in his priorities. He was vocal last year when Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody in Tehran and did commemorate her death and the widespread protests that followed on their first anniversary this September.
What is not so clear is his stance on more controversial, Iran-related matters like the recent Iranian ‘influence scandal’ or a potential, limited deal with the Islamic Republic. Although he is known to be loyal to his party’s line, still he did vote no to the nuclear deal in 2015.
Senator Cardin will have a shorter-than-usual term as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee because his term expires in January 2025, and he has announced that he will not seek reelection.