On Iran, the U.S. Is Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
A return to the Iran Deal is probable, the question was always more of a matter of when. That became more clear this week as the U.S. allowed Iran to access frozen funds in South Korea and Japan for the purposes of debt payments, although the State Department maintains that none of those funds are allowed to be transferred back to Iran.
When the United States does return to the deal, President Biden will be faced with the same dilemma that President Obama faced: now what? Even if we grant the argument that the deal succeeds in putting Iran’s nuclear program back in the box, thus extending its breakout time, the problem of what to do about Iran’s broader regional ambitions remains.
Biden’s rationale for returning to the deal was that it was a necessary first step to get concessions from Iran on things like its ballistic missile program and its role in the destabilizing the region through supporting terrorism. If we are part of the deal, we prove a trustworthy partner and when joined by the other signatories our calls for dealing with those other issues will carry more weight, giving us more leverage.
The problem is what if Tehran says no, as it’s new president-elect Ebrahim Raisi has, calling negotiations over its ballistic missile program “non-negotiable.”
Biden is not going to re-enter the deal, remove sanctions, only to re-apply them over some unrelated matter. At the same, basically begging Iran to negotiate other things can be debasing. Meanwhile, by providing sanctions relief, Biden will have given Tehran more money to put into said missile programs and terrorism.
At the same time, one has to be intellectually honest and admit that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, by its own standard, failed. Sure, sanctions wrecked the Iranian economy and the Abraham Accords were a great success, but Tehran did not come to us on their hands and knees begging for sanction relief on any terms like proponents told us they would. Nor did crashing the Iranian economy curtail Iran’s regional mischief.
Granted, Trump himself acknowledged that his strategy required him to win re-election. Trump said in September, “I’d say right after the election, within a period of a week, maybe a month, but within a period, a very short period,…. literally a very short time, you’ll have Iran coming back and saying lets get this whole thing worked out.”
Of course, that is a hypothetical. It’s possible that Iran would have capitulated, believing but certainty not admitting publicly, that regime preservation is better than regime collapse, but it also represents wishful thinking, especially as Iran was due to hold elections of their own.
It is also possible that Trump, who viewed himself as an anti-war, deal-making president, in his second term divorced from the John Boltons of the world and no longer having to worry about losing traditional Republican voters, would have been the one to capitulate.
Whether one views Trump’s strategy or Biden’s as preferable, it is also not great that the U.S. engage in these radical course alterations from one administration to the next. Iran was willing to bet that it could outlast Trump, but how will it respond if a Republican wins in 2024 and that Republican, who is a more traditional Republican than Trump, shreds the deal a second time?
Democrats are correct to worry about other countries not wanting to deal with us with they do not believe we will live up to our commitments and that short of military action, regime collapse, or the fear of regime collapse, there is no practical way to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.
Republicans are correct to be concerned that, even if Iran lives up to its end of the bargain, the deal will allow it to slow walk its way to the bomb or allow it to continue to work on building a bomb out of sight, while doing nothing to counter Iran’s other malign behavior, even helping finance said behavior and that by re-entering the deal, Biden is throwing away leverage.
How the United States squares this circle will go a long way to shaping the future of the Middle East.