National-security policy should be based on facts, not emotionally laden talking points, especially when the talking points bear little resemblance to reality. But this is precisely what we see in the unfolding effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Ignoring and, in some cases, distorting the facts, the Biden administration appears unwilling to change course and determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
In part, this dangerous fixation results from the return to office of individuals previously associated with the negotiations conducted during the Obama years. The 2015 agreement, despite its fatal flaws and the almost certain rejection by the Senate if it had been submitted as a treaty, is considered by these newly reappointed officials to be the most significant foreign-policy achievement of the Obama-Biden tenure. They believed it then, and they believe it now, despite major changes in the security environment and despite actions taken by Iran that have totally undermined the arguments put forth originally to sell the nuclear agreement to the American public. For them, rejoining the JCPOA is more an article of faith than a calculated response to a national-security threat. Moreover, the single-minded rejection of all Iran-related decisions taken by the previous administration, inseparable from a palpable hatred of Trump, only reinforces their sense of righteousness. But facts, as our second president was fond of saying, are stubborn things.
The JCPOA was portrayed by President Obama and then–vice president Biden as an effective barrier preventing Iran from moving forward in its quest for a nuclear weapon. The principal talking point was that the agreement would block all pathways for Iran’s nuclear program. While it was apparent to many experts that this was not true, the talking point prevailed. Today, especially in light of the actions taken by Iran since the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, the failure of the JCPOA to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is clear. All of these actions — retaining quantities of low-enriched uranium above the permitted level, enriching uranium to 60 percent, operating advanced centrifuges, producing uranium metal (which has only one purpose) — demonstrate that Tehran maintained the option under the agreement to break out whenever it chose to do so. Without any sense of irony or self-awareness, the Biden team now cites Iran’s actions as the most urgent reason to rejoin the agreement. In other words, Iran uses the very flaws of the agreement to gain leverage in the negotiations for the U.S. to rejoin and relieve sanctions.
The JCPOA was also portrayed as a means to engineer positive change inside Iran by strengthening the so-called moderate faction, supposedly headed by President Rouhani, against the hard-liners. The thought was that the hundreds of billions of dollars Iran would receive from sanctions relief would be used to improve its economy, which in turn would lead to political moderation. Even putting aside the false premise that such a division exists in a governing elite selected under the rules of the religious dictatorship set by the supreme leader, we now know what actually happened to the windfall of cash delivered to the regime. The money that was not siphoned off through corruption was used to intimidate Iran’s neighbors, inflame Sunni–Shiite divisions, and provoke instability throughout the region. The Revolutionary Guards and the military acquired even more deadly arsenals of missiles and other weapons used to support the murderous Assad regime, the Houthis, and others, including Iran’s terrorist proxies. None of this should come as a surprise. Following the conclusion of the negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader denounced the United States, making clear that Iran would continue to support its allies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, and reaffirming his support for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Have no doubt that, when sanctions are lifted again, we will hear these same words.
In an effort to justify the decision to rejoin the JCPOA, and consistent with the notion that everything undertaken by the Trump administration must be undone, the Biden administration has disparaged the maximum-pressure campaign as a failure. Yet the policy was having exactly the intended effect. The imposition of broad sanctions on Iran, including restrictions on its ability to sell oil on the international market and use the global financial and banking systems, has had a devastating impact on the economy. Strikes in key sectors have broken out, along with large-scale demonstrations that have threatened the very foundation of the regime. This movement for change was met with barbarity. In late 2018 alone, over 1,500 demonstrators were murdered in the streets.
And while the Biden team rightly speaks out against China’s genocide against the Uighurs and warns Russia that it will pay a high price if Alexei Navalny dies in prison, America’s voice is silent when it comes to Iran’s crimes against humanity. As was done in 2009, the Biden administration has chosen not to respond to the brutal repression of the Iranian people out of concern that speaking out would somehow derail the negotiations to rejoin the nuclear agreement. All potential leverage from economic sanctions has been abandoned, along with the principle of standing up for human rights. Appeasement carries a heavy price.
The administration’s myopic focus on rejoining the JCPOA also ignores the fundamental changes in the security environment of the Gulf region since 2015. The growing collaboration between Israel and the Gulf states, reflected in the Abraham accords, has at its core the goal of containing Iran and deterring its aggression. American allies from Jerusalem to Riyadh understand the nature of the Tehran regime and are working together to confront the threat. The concessions that the Biden administration is reportedly willing to make to return to the nuclear agreement will directly undercut the position of our allies. With relief from sanctions and with tacit agreement from the United States that it will not support the democratic opposition to the religious dictatorship, the Biden policy will strengthen our adversary and undermine our allies, to the long-term strategic detriment of our national interests.
Biden administration officials will, of course. reject all the above criticisms. Their response is conveyed in yet another frequently heard talking point, stating that rejoining the JCPOA is only the first step — a step that will be followed by negotiations to address the agreement’s flaws, such as its failure to limit ballistic missiles, and curb Iran’s malign behavior in the region through armed interventions and support for terrorism. These are the same objectives that were sought in the original negotiations but abandoned when the supreme leader ruled them out. That position has not changed, and there is no indication that it will. When the U.S. lifts sanctions as a condition of rejoining the agreement, it will be the last step, not the first step. Iran will have again achieved its objectives. And the U.S. will have again paid a high price for a bad deal.
Finally, as for ending Iran’s involvement in acts of state terrorism, one need look no further than the city where the negotiations are currently taking place. In February, an Iranian agent assigned to Tehran’s embassy in Vienna was convicted in a Belgian court of committing an act of state terrorism, for planning and supplying an explosive device intended to bomb a peaceful rally near Paris attended by tens of thousands seeking a democratic and secular Iran. Today that same embassy is providing support to the Iranian delegation in the JCPOA talks, and the reaction of the European host governments and the Biden administration: complete silence. But the message for Iran is loud and clear.