Biden’s Iran policy has been a total failure
Former Trump administration official Mike Pompeo yesterday falsely accused President Biden of going back to “old policies” that purportedly empower the Iranian government. It is rich, coming from one of the officials most responsible for unraveling hard-fought international restraints on Iran’s nuclear program, and when all of the sanctions that Pompeo pushed and authorized remain in place under Biden.
Perhaps the former secretary of state has failed to keep up with current events. Biden did campaign on breaking with former President Trump’s Middle East strategy — pledging to make Saudi Arabia a pariah for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and to restore the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump abandoned. Yet now, as his administration scrambles to bring down soaring oil prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the president’s advisers are reportedly pushing for Biden to reverse his commitments and bend the knee to the Saudi Crown Prince while allowing the window to close on restoring the Iran deal for fear of political blowback.
As a result of Biden continuing Trump and Pompeo’s approach, Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold power. In the absence of a restored nuclear agreement, Iran has now produced a “significant quantity” of uranium enriched to the 60 percent threshold. If Iran decides to enrich that stockpile further, it would soon have enough weapons grade material for a nuclear weapon. Likewise, Iran has already responded to the passage of an IAEA Board of Governors censure resolution over Iran’s stonewalling of questions into its past nuclear work by shutting off the agency’s cameras at some nuclear sites. Adding to concerns, Israel’s Air Force recently conducted a massive war game with over 100 aircraft simulating a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The United States and Iran are lurching into an entirely avoidable crisis. But it didn’t have to be this way.
Trump’s decision to wantonly violate and abandon the Iran deal was a demonstrable failure that Biden rightly condemned. Restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program ended, regional security drastically deteriorated, and the United States and Iran moved to the brink of war — all for zero security gains. Coming into office, there was a window for Biden to decisively break from his predecessor’s failed approach and signal that Washington was serious about upholding its international commitments. Biden did so with other Trump policies by terminating the Muslim Ban and re-entering the Paris Climate Accords. But despite ample room for a 180-degree policy reversal on Iran, Biden dithered.
Instead of moving swiftly to restore the deal early in 2021, Biden’s cabinet nominees began implying that Iran must first return to its commitments — which it began abrogating one year after Trump pulled out of the accord — and suggesting that the United States would consult with partners around the region and seek a “longer and stronger” deal. While talks to restore the agreement did finally get underway in April 2021, they did not reach the finish line before Iran’s June presidential elections produced a new hardline administration that was deeply skeptical of negotiations with the United States. While talks with the new Iranian leaders finally picked up again late last year, they have snagged on the Biden administration’s unwillingness to lift poison-pill sanctions that the Trump team imposed for the explicit purpose of creating political hurdles for Biden to restore the agreement.
As bad as Trump’s approach was, Biden’s failure to course correct is now the more consequential decision.
While it is still theoretically possible for Biden to snatch diplomatic victory from the jaws of defeat, Biden has ruled out the symbolic concession that would be most likely to break the months-long diplomatic impasse. Biden has reportedly said he will not lift the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, seemingly under any circumstance. The designation, quite literally planned to undermine Biden’s diplomacy, gains the United Statesnothing as Biden officials themselves have argued. But they have allowed it block a restoration of the agreement, regardless.
The end result has been predictable. Iran has filled up Bibi Netanyahu’s old cartoon bomb with 60 percent enriched uranium, a stone’s throw away from weapons grade enrichment. Ordinary Iranians have suffered tremendously for 17 additional months under the maximum pressure sanctions Biden once condemned. Congressional allies have been left befuddled as to why Biden took so long to act.
Unfortunately, without restoring the nuclear accord there are no good options on Iran for Biden. Calls from hawks to impose more sanctions would do nothing to slow Iran’s nuclear advances, and would likely prompt more Iranian escalation. The move to censure Iran at this week’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting could only yield a limited Iranian response, at best, and could backfire significantly, at worst. Then there is the so-called military option, which could result in a devastating regional war, would incentivize Iranian proliferation, and cause oil prices to skyrocket. Biden would be wise to avoid it at all costs.
Particularly given the horrible alternatives, the lack of diplomatic resolve from the Biden administration has been surprising and disappointing. To be clear, the Iranians have made major missteps as well. Supreme Leader Khamenei appears to have blocked Rouhani from finalizing a deal in the waning days of his term as president.Current president Ebrahim Raisi’s government was too slow to pick talks back up and has likewise dug in on the FTO designation.
But given that it was the United States, not Iran, that broke the deal and there are legitimate doubts about America’s ability to uphold a renewed deal beyond 2024, Biden needed to approach the negotiations with resolve to overcome the damage of his predecessor and restore the agreement. Instead he is still digging the hole he found himself in even deeper.
Despite the fact that Donald Trump did a lot of damage on Iran policy over four years, Joe Biden and his advisers miraculously still had the option for a wide open lay-up in a swift return to the nuclear deal. But they missed it.
Now, with midterms fast approaching, it will take a major reversal of fortune to revive the JCPOA or any deal with Iran that rolls back its nuclear program. A tentative stalemate may hold for a time, avoiding an escalation toward full-blown war or Iranian proliferation. But if Biden continues to be more afraid of success than failure, he will soon pay the costs of diplomatic collapse and reap the seeds of conflict that Donald Trump sowed.