National Security & Defense

Is the CIA Determined to Look Away from Iran?

Then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (second from left) reviews a display during Iran’s National Nuclear Energy Day in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office/West Asia News Agency/Handout via Reuters)
It’s dangerously unwise of the Biden administration to make bureaucratic moves that signal a softer line on the Iranian threat.

According to the New York Times, the CIA is about to reorganize itself to deal with the threat of China — by creating a China Mission Center. That’s a smart move, likely to bring more manpower, intellect, top-level attention, and resources to the great geopolitical challenge the United States faces in the 21st century.

Similar moves at the State Department, beefing up substantially the old “China desk,” are equally sensible and for the same reasons. Such bureaucratic moves can make a significant difference both as a reflection of what the people at the top of the government care about most and as a means of giving them — and other governments — better information and better options.

When I served in the Trump administration State Department as special representative for Venezuela, from 2019 to 2021, the Department’s organization showed the importance accorded to issues pertaining to that country. I was part of Secretary Pompeo’s senior staff, with ready and frequent access to him; I had my own small staff; in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs there was a Venezuela desk of about a dozen people, reporting to the deputy assistant secretary of state for Venezuela and Cuba; and there were additional resources in the Andean Affairs desk in the bureau and other offices there.

But switches can be flipped from on to off. The Biden administration has eliminated the office of special representative for Venezuela and its staff, as well as the large Venezuela staff in the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau and the position of deputy assistant secretary for Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuela is handled at the Andean Affairs desk, along with Colombia, Peru, and other countries. To officials in the U.S. government and other governments, and to Venezuelans, the message is clear: This issue is going to get a lot less attention at the top.

In another worrisome change, it seems that the CIA, while building up its resources for China, is taking apart those for Iran. The Iran Mission Center is to be dissolved, and its near-legendary leader, Mike D’Andrea, is retiring. The Times reported this: “The appointment in 2017 of Mr. D’Andrea, who had a long career leading operations against Al Qaeda and other terrorist targets, was a sign of the Trump administration’s hard line on Iran. And inside the C.I.A., Mr. D’Andrea helped craft a more muscular approach against Tehran.”

Yes, indeed — so what is the message being sent now? Clearly, that less attention will be given to Iran and that a softer approach is desired.

This is exactly the wrong moment to send such a message. Iran is violating not only the Obama Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), every day, but also the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and continues to refuse the International Atomic Energy Agency access that is required of every NPT signatory. As is becoming clearer by the day, Iran is not intending to return to the JCPOA, and the new government of President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is taking a far harder line.

At this exact moment, it seems dangerously unwise to make bureaucratic moves that signal a softer line on the Iranian threat and less attention to it at the top. Other governments, including that in Tehran, and officials in our own government will see the departure of D’Andrea and the closing of the Iran Mission Center as a message — and it is precisely the wrong message to send right now.

The deeper problem, of course, is that this message may give an accurate sense of Biden administration policy. Iran’s conduct is worse and worse, but there is no sign that the Biden administration is yet contemplating the tougher steps it must take as Iran proceeds apace toward possessing a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. Dreams of a return to the JCPOA seem to die hard. And the great danger the administration seems most acutely determined to avoid is any move that might invite comparison to its predecessor and the “maximum pressure” campaign of 2019–21.

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Elliott Abrams was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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