Biden must avoid repeating Obama’s errors on Iran
On the presidential campaign trail last year, Joe Biden pledged to restore America's participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. To this end, indirect talks on reviving the agreement started last month in Vienna. These talks have been brokered by the EU but involve all the parties to the 2015 deal.
There have been four rounds of talks already, but little progress has been made. One of the reasons for this is the unrealistically high expectations both sides had before re-entering talks.
After listening to Biden’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, Tehran probably thought that a Biden administration would immediately jump back into the JCPOA. Conversely, the Biden campaign failed to recognize how much the world has changed since 2015 and how the actions taken as part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran have made it difficult to simply rejoin the flawed deal.
Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 was controversial but necessary. Any discussion about reviving the JCPOA deserves a reminder as to why the deal was bad to begin with. First and foremost, the deal could not live up to its original goal of preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, the best-case scenario was that the JCPOA merely delayed Iran’s progress.
Another flaw in the original agreement was the so-called sunset clauses. These allowed key restrictions on items such as uranium enrichment, centrifuge production and international monitoring to expire after a certain number of years, in some cases as early as 15 years. Also, none of Iran’s malign activities outside of its nuclear program, like its support for terrorism around the region, were addressed.
And it is important to remember the circumstances in which the original deal was made. The Obama administration was desperate for a nuclear deal with Iran no matter the cost. This had consequences for the region. For example, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to Bashar Assad’s atrocities in Syria and the support Damascus was getting from Tehran. It also undermined America’s relationship with many Gulf states. By the time Barack Obama’s second term was over, there was a serious lack of trust between much of the Gulf and Washington.
However, perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the 2015 deal was that it gave Tehran massive sanctions and economic relief up front, while only requiring it to make temporary and easily reversible concessions on its nuclear program. This money has since been used to fan the flames of terrorism across much of the Middle East.
American policymakers cannot pretend that Iran’s nuclear program is in a geopolitical vacuum.
The American public was told that the JCPOA would convince Iran to change its nefarious ways. This has not been the case. Since 2015, Iran has continued its campaign of terror in the region. It has hijacked commercial ships in the Gulf and has fanned the sectarian flames in Iraq. Iran and its proxies were behind a drone and missile attack against Saudi oil facilities in 2019. Tehran still enables the Assad regime to continue its killing in Syria and the Houthis to continue their fighting in Yemen. At every turn since coming to power in 1979, Iran’s extremist leaders have done everything in their power to spread the revolution across the region. The JCPOA did not change this.
However, now that the Biden administration is committed to talks with Iran, it should do the following three things to ensure it does not fall into the same trap as the Obama administration.
First, there should be no sanctions relief until the Iranians show that they are willing to abide by the terms of the JCPOA. To date, this has not been the case. In fact, just this week the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has enriched uranium to 63 percent purity. The Biden administration should not make the same mistake as the Obama administration by giving Iran up-front sanctions relief. Instead, sanctions relief should be benchmarked to progress made by Tehran.
Secondly, the US should not ignore Iran’s other nefarious activities in the region. American policymakers cannot pretend that Iran’s nuclear program is in a geopolitical vacuum. Iran needs to understand that the price of sanctions relief also includes ending its support for terrorism around the region.
Thirdly, the Biden administration should conduct direct talks with Iran. Currently, the indirect format of the Vienna talks favors Tehran. This is because the other countries of the JCPOA want an unconditional return to the deal. No doubt, they are advocating from a point of view sympathetic to the flawed 2015 agreement. The Biden administration should seek direct talks with Tehran rather than relying on the Europeans, Russia or China to stand up for American interests. As the diplomatic saying goes: If you are not at the table, then you are probably on the menu.
How the Biden administration deals with Iran is one of the biggest and most immediate foreign policy challenges in the Middle East. The situation has moved on since 2015 and it would be unwise for the US to simply return to the existing deal. However, if the White House chooses the path of negotiation, it should be recognized that the pressure Trump placed on the Iranian regime through restored sanctions could create beneficial conditions for talks with Iran, should Biden play his cards right.
Going forward, the Biden administration needs to wake up and deal with the Iran it has and not the Iran it wishes for.
• Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey