The Tuesday

National Security & Defense

Joe Biden, Iran, and De-Trumpification

President-elect Joe Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Del., November 24, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Rejoining the Iran deal won’t solve the problem Iran poses.

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about culture, language, politics, and the odds of near-term nuclear annihilation. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” which all the cool kids are doing these days, follow this link.

Headlong De-Trumpification, from Paris to Tehran

It is clear that President-elect Joe Biden believes that his most immediate and most urgent task upon assuming the presidency is un-Trumping things. He should be careful about that when it comes to Iran.

As Barack Obama did for much of his presidency, Donald Trump has relied heavily on unilateral executive action to advance his policy goals, which is far easier than working out a compromise in Congress but which also produces policies that are unstable — that which can be done unilaterally by a president generally can be undone unilaterally by a president. And so Biden will make it his business to undo a great deal of what Trump has done, in some cases reinstating unilateral Obama administration policies that the Trump administration unilaterally undid.

The president has a fairly wide scope of action in matters of foreign relations, and so, in addition to rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change, Joe Biden plans to recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

How you think about climate-change policy depends to a very great extent on whether you think getting it wrong on climate will mean a marginally more painful and disruptive process of adaptation than the one we are likely to undergo in any case or instead think that getting it wrong on climate means unprecedented human suffering and even possible human extinction. Similarly, the question of whether Biden’s plans for Iran should be thought of as intelligent proactive diplomacy or as grievous miscalculation depends to a very great extent on how likely you think it is that Tehran will use nuclear weapons against the United States or our allies. In both the United States and in Europe, people who tend to be very risk-averse when it comes to climate generally are the opposite when it comes to Iranian nuclear ambitions, and vice versa.

A signature on the Paris agreement may be all Biden actually wants or needs on climate. Even if simply reinstating the JCPOA with no changes were an option — and it probably isn’t — that would not settle the matter of Iranian nuclear development for the Biden administration or the United States.

Cynics rarely are disappointed, and a cynic might conclude that the one thing Americans really need to know about the JCPOA is how desperate Tehran is to see it reinstated. Tehran is in the process of provoking a nuclear crisis with an eye to achieving that.

The Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018, leaving the Europeans trying to hold together a functioning agreement with support from Moscow and Beijing. This was ultimately unsuccessful. In January 2020, Tehran announced that it would no longer respect JCPOA limitations on its nuclear program. Tehran accused the Europeans of being in noncompliance with the deal for not taking a more defensive line against Trump’s sanctions regime and for “taking measures in line with the US pressure campaign,” as Iran’s Financial Tribune put it.

And now the Iranian parliament has passed a law directing the nation’s nuclear agency, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), to begin a campaign of nuclear escalation. Writing in Haaretz, Henry Rome and Ariane Tabatabai spell out the details: AEOI is ordered to begin producing 20-percent-enriched uranium, which is closer to what is used in nuclear weapons, something AEOI hasn’t done since before the agreement was implemented; AEOI will increase production of less-enriched uranium as well; AEOI will install some 1,000 advanced centrifuges; it will begin work on a uranium-metal-production plant, necessary to a weaponized nuclear program; AEOI will design and begin work on a new 40-megawatt reactor; and perhaps most significant, the new law directs the Iranian government to reduce its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency to a bare minimum.

“It is hard to sugarcoat this bill,” Rome and Tabatabai write. “It is a step-by-step guide to triggering a nuclear crisis akin to the pre-JCPOA period.” And, with an election coming up, hardliners in the Iranian government may be disinclined to make concessions. The Trump administration described its position on Iran as “maximum pressure,” and Tehran is now responding with defiance that is, if not maximum, then at least pointed in the maximalist direction. It is worth keeping in mind that the law already was under consideration before the death of Iranian nuclear-weapons developer Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, though his assassination may have intensified the campaign for the new law.

The Trump administration’s sanctions campaign worked, but only in a limited way. The sanctions succeeded in imposing severe economic suffering on Iran, at least for a period, although Iran has seen some relief as its oil exports have bounced back, with bargain-hunters in China and elsewhere thumbing their noses at threatened sanctions. The sanctions caused pain, but imposing economic pain on Iran is not an end but a means to an end — an end the Trump administration has not achieved. As The Economist puts it: “Defenders of Mr. Trump’s policy insist that it simply needs more time to work, an argument that is impossible to disprove. Mr. Trump leaves office with Iran’s influence undiminished and its nuclear programme accelerated. Sanctions can be a useful foreign-policy tool. But they cannot be the only one.”

What is it that Biden hopes to achieve vis-à-vis Iran? It may be that his goal is purely political, as it seems to be in rejoining the Paris agreement rather than negotiating a climate treaty that might actually be ratified by the Senate. The Democrats are eager to distance themselves from the bumptiousness of the Trump administration and, having become the party of the moneyed professional classes and the policy-making elites, they are very solicitous of international public opinion, here meaning for the most part European public opinion, which runs strongly in favor of the JCPOA. Biden is very likely to be a one-term president, and though he does not exactly dazzle with his intellect, he can do the math and is cunning enough to understand that neither a lasting settlement with Tehran nor an Iranian nuclear strike on Tel Aviv is very likely to come to pass during his time in office. As often is the case with new presidents taking over from a member of the opposite party, Biden indicates that he wants to concentrate on domestic affairs — as both Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him had hoped to do. Donald Trump was unusual in putting so many foreign-relations questions — China, Mexico, Afghanistan, trade agreements — at the center of his first campaign. Joe Biden probably would prefer not to think very much about Iran at all.

But he does not have that luxury, and, if he intends to accomplish something more substantive on Iran, then simply rejoining the JCPOA and declaring our foreign policy cleansed of the stain of Trumpism is not going to get it done. Biden and others, including our European allies, have suggested that the JCPOA is something that can be built on, that rejoining it would only be the first step toward building a dialogue in which other outstanding issues (and there are many of them with Iran) can be addressed. If that is what Biden wants to do, then he has as much business to attend to with Senate Republicans as he does with Tehran, because any meaningful and stable long-term change in U.S.–Iranian relations is going to require reasonably broad bipartisan buy-in and consensus.

Neither the Iranians nor our allies have reason to put much faith in an executive-only agreement that is likely to be voided in four years if the presidency changes hands. But Biden has shown little inclination to put seeking bipartisan consensus at the center of his program when it comes to climate change, which he says is important to him, and there is little reason to think he has the desire — or even the ability — to work out something more meaningful on Iran.

And so that can probably will be kicked down the road, at the end of which is a nuclear-armed Iran. If anything, Biden’s accommodating left-wing efforts to hobble the U.S. energy industry is likely to strengthen both the position of Iran itself and the ayatollahs’ patron in Moscow. The last four years have shown that sanctions can hurt, that Iran’s Arab neighbors are, in their way, slowly coming around to the understanding that Iran is a much bigger problem for them than are 7 million Jews in Israel, that the American energy renaissance has put the United States in a much stronger position in the Middle East —and that none of this is quite enough. There is a lot of room between status quo ante and regime change in Iran, and the JCPOA, whatever its modest merits, cannot be the end of the road. There is at this moment not much reason to believe Biden has a credible program for what comes after.

Words About Words

I have a habit of typing really, really hard, as many people who have endured sharing an office with me can attest. I type so hard that my poor MacBook sounds like an old Royal manual typewriter, clackety-clackety-clackety, tap, tap, Whack. Etc. And sometime between when I began this newsletter and finishing it, I managed to break the “F” key, more or less. (It’ll still make an F if I hold it down for a bit.) I’ve been cutting and pasting Fs as needed, but I thought of trying to rewrite the newsletter with no Fs at all.

There’s a word for that: lipogram, from the Greek word (λειπογράμματος) meaning “leaving out a letter.” Lipograms are a kind of literary stunt. A famous one was the novel Gadsby, which contains about 50,000 words but no letter E. Some works omit a letter by accident (there is no X or Z in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), but the writer of a lipogram does it on purpose.

Why? I don’t know. Writing is hard enough without imposing artificial constraints on oneself, and, unlike an acrostic, there isn’t much charm to a lipogram.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Slate headline: “Which of These Terrifying Real-Life Rat Scenarios Is Actually Worse?”

This is a worse-case scenario!

Not that it is wrong — it isn’t: Slate is considering only two horrible rodential situations, and, when there are two objects being compared, the comparative form is called for: worse, rather than worst. If you have three or more, then you want worst, the superlative form. Bad, worse, worst; good, better, best; ugly, uglier, ugliest, full, fuller, fullest — but not beautiful, beautifuller, beautifullest. (You want more and most there.) Some speakers, particularly children, are less than careful with that, asking: “Who is tallest — me or him?” To which the answer is likely to be: “One of you is taller than the other, but neither of you is the tallest.” If you are trying to think of the superlative form, just imagine what Donald Trump would say: biggest, best, most beautiful . . .

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

You can buy my recently released book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. I think you might like it: It’s the sort of thing you’ll enjoy if you enjoy that sort of thing.

You can see Salena Zito and me discuss the book, and much else, on CSPAN here. Salena was in the middle of moving, and I have a dachshund barking in the background — we keep it real on CSPAN.

You can hear me talk about Big White Ghetto with John J. Miller on Bookmonger here.

You can hear me on Parallax Views, which I think is a lefty-ish podcast, here. We talk about that book, which you can buy right here.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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In Closing

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an often-misunderstood solemnity. (Catholic beliefs about Mary are very often misunderstood, and as often misrepresented.) The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the conception of Jesus by Mary but rather to the conception of Mary by her mother, Anne. Catholic doctrine holds that Mary was given this gift by the grace of God “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind,” that she might be “kept free from all stain of original sin.” It always has been a mystery to me that some of my Protestant friends who ask Bob and Sue to pray for them are scandalized when Patrick or Bernadette asks Mary for her prayers in the same way. If we really believe that the dead still are with us in some genuine sense, then this should be entirely unremarkable.

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