Iranian moderates and reformers secured unprecedented wins last week in the first national elections since the nuclear deal was struck. But in Congress, many of the pact’s staunchest opponents say the results don’t count for anything.
“The political system in Iran’s a joke,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), adding that the significance of the moderates’ sweep in Tehran and other apparent wins across the country counts for “zero, zip.”
“There are no moderates in Iran,” Graham added. “That’s a fiction I don’t buy.”
For months, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal — effectively approved by Congress last fall — argued that lifting international sanctions in exchange for Iran’s surrendering its nuclear capabilities would fuel terrorism, other “malign activities,” and ultimately strengthen the position of hardliners already in charge.
Now, President Obama’s team looks prescient for arguing that the deal was essential for any hope of bringing about a moderate shift in the Islamic Republic.
Allies of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and other reformers managed to sweep the available seats in Tehran in the recent contests, while securing a majority in the Iranian parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that will choose Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successor. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most unbending hardliners lost their seats during the election.
But many of the nuclear deal’s staunchest critics denounced the Iranian elections even before they took place, based on a culling of candidates that barred many of the most moderate and reform-minded contestants from running.
“As long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge, it doesn’t matter, the elections,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), another vocal opponent of the nuclear deal.
“I wouldn’t call the people who swept ‘moderates,’” added Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho). “The election shows no change.”
Iran has hardly acted like a saint since the deal was signed last July. The pact’s opponents are quick to point to recent ballistic missile tests and the detention of U.S. soldiers as part of the deal’s legacy.
But a few of the deal’s opponents are celebrating the results as a sign of change.
“Am I glad that more moderate people, it would appear, are elected? Yes. I really am,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) “The question is, will having more moderate people involved just put a more moderate face on Iran, or are policies going to change?”
Even some of the deal’s supporters are also throwing water on the budding enthusiasm over the election results.
“In many ways, the list of regime-approved candidates told us more about Iran’s intentions than the election results,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who called himself “deeply skeptical” that the moderates’ wins would bring about any progress.
Ever since the nuclear deal was approved, its critics — many of them Republicans — have vowed to crack down on Tehran in other ways. But the timeline has lagged.
The Senate is currently overdue to release and consider a slate of Iran-related bills that key members said would be brought up last month. The measures were expected to address everything from Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests to human rights violations, and include a reauthorization of the soon-expiring Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). The ISA encompasses a variety of trade, energy, defense and banking sanctions over Iran’s nuclear and missile activities, as well as its support for terrorist groups.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who also opposed the nuclear deal and downplayed the significance of the moderates’ win in Iran, said last week that he expects to introduce his Iran bills “soon.”
Absent such actions, there is little Congress can do to influence political events in Iran but watch how things, like the recent elections, play out.
“I’m never going to complain when it looks like more moderate elements are having a voice, but we’ve seen the kind of games that Iran plays. So I’ll wait and see,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) “I’d love to see a difference in behavior from the people who are running the country; I doubt seriously it will happen. I hope I’m wrong.”