President Joe Biden’s top Iran envoy is expected to face senators demanding clarity on the administration’s efforts to return to a nuclear deal after more than a year of talks, a likely bruising showing for the White House on an issue that divides Democrats and Republicans alike.

State Department Special Envoy Robert Malley will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, yielding to months of pressure from Democrats and Republicans for transparency on the administration’s work to rehabilitate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

The rare public hearing will grant Malley an opportunity to proactively make the case for returning to the pact after more than a year of protracted negotiations. But it is also a chance for lawmakers to highlight aspects of a deal that they think deserve greater scrutiny in a setting that ramps up pressure on Biden at a time when his political capital is diminishing.


“In the quest for this nuclear deal, you’ve seen the U.S. pull punches,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow, including over the use of diplomatic pressure at the International Atomic Energy Agency, or by removing a terrorist designation from an Iran-backed militant group.

And while the White House has not rescinded former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” tools, critics say that the administration has failed to force compliance, limiting the pressure of the sanctions.

Taleblu billed the failure to enforce the penalties as a concession to members of the political Left, and the decision to maintain the rules as an attempt to appease the Right, with neither process proving effective.

“The administration thought it could have its cake and eat it,” he said. “Ultimately, it got caught somewhere in the middle.”

The result has been a year of negotiations, with Tehran driving a hard and halting bargain. “The Iranians sensed that trepidation and have taken to escalating at every round,” Taleblu said.

The hearing Wednesday will give senators a chance to probe the administration’s deliberations and press for a commitment to bring any agreement before the upper chamber. Questions over what comes next if talks dissolve and Biden’s broader Iran policy are also expected to feature.

It is not only Biden’s political opponents who have questions. Frustrated by the administration’s quiet approach, Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) committed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to a public hearing on Iran when the diplomat appeared before his committee during a budget hearing last month. Menendez also said the long-awaited deal would “do nothing” to address Iran’s regional activities.

“The issue here is that right now the U.S. does not have an Iran policy,” said Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran. “It has a JCPOA policy. And the latter does not have sustainable bipartisan political support, as evidenced by the two recent votes in the U.S. Senate.”

Brodsky said to expect tough questions from senators on spotty sanctions enforcement, over whether the U.S. might offer non-nuclear sanctions relief for a return to mutual compliance in the deal, and the timing, as the range of the 2015 deal continues to narrow. In addition, senators are going to want commitments on transparency and for Biden to bring any agreement to the senate.

Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department special adviser for Iran during the Trump administration, said that while senators might point to the Obama administration’s numerous hearings as they worked to secure a deal in 2015, Malley will want to avoid making any commitments.

“The goal for the administration is always to make zero news, zero TV clips, and make zero commitment to the Senate to take any actions or do any follow-up,” Noronha said.

Still, there will be pressure to explain the contents of the yearlong Vienna discussions, and he predicted that Malley would come under intense fire.

“He’s going to be raked over the coals,” Noronha added. “The Russians know what’s in it, the Iranians know what’s in it, and the Europeans do. The only people that don’t know are U.S. members of Congress and the U.S. public.”

Negotiations have ground on for more than a year but lately reached an impasse over Tehran’s demand that the administration rescinds Trump’s designation of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. In a tweet Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked Biden for his “principled decision” to keep the designation in place.

Asked to confirm whether Biden had settled on maintaining the rule, a National Security Council spokesperson declined to say. “We are not negotiating in public and are not going to respond to specific claims about what sanctions we would be prepared to lift as part of a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” said the official, adding Biden “will do what’s in the best interests of U.S. national security.”

Biden’s return to a deal may be facing a critical juncture as pressure mounts ahead of the midterm elections.


Some Democrats have struggled with the administration’s approach, voicing concerns about the political blowback of a deal the public isn’t ready for and which members aren’t prepared to defend.

During a two-hour call with the White House in March, some 12 House Democrats criticized Biden officials for “bungling the public messaging” around the negotiations and said they would have to answer for a deal, sources told Punchbowl News.

“How do you know when it’s time to call it quits?” Taleblu asked.