Joe Biden
Joe BidenREUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Biden administration officials assured senators on Wednesday that the US would ramp up sanctions on Iran if needed as hopes dim for a diplomatic pathway on Tehran’s nuclear program, Politico reported, citing attendees at a classified briefing.

The assurances came as lawmakers in both parties press the Biden administration to articulate a backup plan that could prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Iran scaled back its compliance with the 2015 deal, in response to former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May of 2018, but has held several rounds of indirect talks with the US on a return to the agreement.

An agreement was nearly reached before the talks stopped in March. US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told lawmakers recently that the prospects for reaching a deal with Iran are “tenuous” at best.

“For all intents and purposes, there are no talks,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said after Wednesday’s briefing, according to Politico. “The question is whether leaving the door open to the potential deal … is something that’s desirable as a strategic position for the administration to say to the world, ‘We tried, here it is, they’re unwilling to do it.’”

Biden administration officials conveyed to senators that existing sanctions against Iran would be maintained, at a minimum. When asked if the administration is considering additional punitive measures as a way to curb Iran’s nuclear program, Menendez responded, “I would stay tuned.”

Senators who attended Wednesday’s briefing described a range of possible next steps for US policy toward Iran, from continuing to search for a diplomatic solution to imposing new sanctions and huddling with partners in the region. President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel next month to two of those partner countries, Saudi Arabia and Israel, for talks on a wide range of issues, including Iran and global energy prices.

State Department officials either declined to comment or did not respond to questions about the briefing.

Menendez, who opposed the Obama administration’s deal, has already said publicly that Iran “now has enough uranium to produce a nuclear weapon” and has urged the White House to admit that a return to the original agreement is no longer the best path. Nearly all Republicans agree with him.

Lawmakers in Washington have several times expressed concerns about the pending Iran agreement.

In March, a bipartisan group of 21 Members of Congress, led by Gottheimer, Luria and Tom Reed (NY-23), urged the Biden administration to address concerns surrounding the looming agreement with Iran.

The lawmakers noted that, with reports indicating that the Vienna negotiations are nearing conclusion, there are several critical concerning issues that remain on the table — including the potential lifting of the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and of sanctions placed on the Supreme Leader.

A month earlier, nearly 200 House Republicans wrote to Biden and warned that any nuclear deal made with Iran without Congress' approval "will meet the same fate" as the 2015 agreement.

Last month, the US Senate passed a non-binding motion prohibiting the Biden administration from removing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of foreign terrorist organizations as part of a nuclear deal with Iran.