Why Biden will regret seeking a ‘quick win’ on Iran
Positive statements by Iranian officials after last week’s meeting in Vienna suggest that if the Americans and Europeans are considering additional demands in an updated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), nobody has told the Iranians.
State Department comments about readiness to lift “sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA” also suggest that Biden may have chosen the path of least resistance for returning to a flawed and limited nuclear deal, with no mechanism for addressing Tehran’s terrorism, paramilitarism, expansionism, missile proliferation and warmongering. It is astonishing that after previous hints that the JCPOA would require substantive revisions, US negotiators appear to have made no mention of them in public or private. And what about assurances about liaising with Arab states and other concerned parties?
By refusing direct talks with the Americans, Tehran avoids any form of negotiation process in which it could succumb to pressure to accept new concessions. European states are keen to lock both sides back into the JCPOA before June presidential elections in Iran, but this desperation for a quick win means all the pressure to compromise falls on the Western parties.
Nevertheless, areas of disagreement remain. Iran demands the lifting of “all US sanctions imposed under the previous US president,” but American officials reject removing sanctions imposed on terrorism and human rights grounds. There are also concerns that Tehran’s demand for “verification” of sanctions removal would mean waiting to assess the economic impact before acting on their commitments.
I sympathize with Biden’s rush to overturn his predecessor’s toxic legacy, but Trump’s tough Iran policy was perhaps the only thing he got right. Biden now risks squandering the diplomatic capital gained from four years of accumulated pressures against the ayatollahs. With boiling domestic discontent and massive uncertainty over who will succeed Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, this is the time to reapply “maximum pressure” — finally addressing the manifold existential threats that Tehran poses to regional security, not offering the ayatollahs a “get out of jail free” card.
Tens of billions of dollars of frozen oil revenues are held by South Korea, Japan, India and China. A Korean oil tanker has just been released by Iran on condition of Seoul’s “help” in releasing some of these funds. Even before the abolition of sanctions, some revenues could be released to Tehran if Washington signals that no legal action is pending.
Iranian citizens desperately need this money. More than half of them are below the poverty line. Growing levels of extreme poverty and malnutrition are obscured because many of the poorest families have movedfrom expensive major cities to deprived regions such as Zahedan, where families are crowded into tiny shelters and rely on scarce charity.
Biden now risks squandering the diplomatic capital gained from four years of accumulated pressures against the ayatollahs.
The rial halved in value during 2020, and experts warned that Iran could become trapped in a cycle of hyperinflation. The economy has shrunk by 16.5 percent in three years, and the population has been battered by successive bouts of coronavirus. The 2021-22 budget was passed in February, despite MPs’ warnings that it was based on impossible levels of oil sales at inflated prices, pegged at an unrealistic rial-dollar exchange rate — requiring a 47 percent growth in state revenues.
Although the 2015 JCPOA brought a temporary economic rebound in Iran, tens of billions of dollars of repatriated funds were diverted for overseas paramilitarism — a huge jump in Iranian support for Bashar Assad’s genocidal war in Syria, a qualitative increase in Tehran’s military involvement in Yemen, and increased funding for Hezbollah and Iraqi paramilitaries.
After five years when these militants have been relatively starved of Iranian funding, they will once again beflush with cash and on the offensive. Expect renewed Houthi onslaughts in Yemen and an upsurge in rocket attacks against Saudi Arabia. Expect the renewed destabilization of Iraq. Expect the collapse of Lebanon. And expect a major confrontation between Israel and Iran’s proxies across Syrian territory.
Consequently, what sounds to Biden now like the easiest approach on Iran will rapidly embroil America back in renewed Middle East chaos. Unfrozen funding could also be poured into Tehran’s ballistic missile program, with thousands of medium-range missiles already widely deployed to menace regional states. Furthermore, an astonishing two-thirds of Iran’s state budget is habitually devoured by opaque state-owned institutions and non-profit organizations, which are exempt from parliamentary scrutiny and which may largely constitute immense slush funds for corrupt leaders.
A deal made up of “sunset clauses” that allow Iran to return to uranium enrichment within a few years simply delays the threat. Iran has no peaceful need to be enriching significant volumes of uranium to current levels.Some experts estimate that the nuclear program has ultimately cost Iran hundreds of billions of dollars, with zero prospect of completion; if necessary, Israel, America, or regional powers will resort to force to prevent Iran becoming a military nuclear power. We have already seen steps toward conflict, with Israel and Iran attacking each other’s ships, and Israel’s unceasing strikes against Iranian positions in Syria.
Barack Obama came to power in 2009 with the promise to rapidly withdraw US troops from Iraq, a highly popular move that radically reduced American overseas commitments — but led directly to the 2014 collapse of Iraq and drew the West back into a long and complex war with Daesh.
Likewise, a quick return to the JCPOA is highly popular with progressive Democrats, and superficially appears to resolve one of Biden’s most complex Middle East dilemmas, allowing him to focus on China and other far-flung challenges. But if it leads to billions of dollars funneled to terrorist and paramilitary groups, a new phase of Iranian expansionism, and wide-scale regional conflict, Biden may soon bitterly regret adopting the strategy that appeared easiest at the time.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.