Joe Biden’s people say that his move to return to Barack Obama’s JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran, is the only reasonable path. After all, they argue that Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” failed, as evidenced by Iran’s signing a 25-year agreement to cooperate economically and strategically with China. They also note that Iran responded by ramping up their violations of the agreement.
Although Biden initially talked tough, saying that the US would not weaken sanctions until Iran returned to compliance with the original agreement by ending enrichment of uranium to 20%, reducing its stockpile of enriched material, and other items, American resolve seems to be slipping in the face of Iranian stubbornness. The person he put in charge of the negotiations, Robert Malley, has said that he prefers to return more or less to the original deal first, and then try to negotiate a new, better one later. On the face of it, this is silly. If the US gives up leverage by removing sanctions, why would the Iranians want to renegotiate later, just to obtain a deal that is worse for them?
The original deal was simply a disaster. It removed the restrictions placed on Iran by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that it had signed and ending international sanctions enforcing several Security Council resolutions intended to deter it from its nuclear ambitions. It granted Iran an unprecedented “right to enrich” uranium that the NPT denied, with limits that would be removed in a decade. That decade ends soon, in 2025, after which there will be no limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
Even those temporary limits were technically inadequate, as was the inspection routine, which had holes big enough to drive numerous large trucks through. As a side benefit to Iran, Security Council resolutions that forbade Iran from developing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons were replaced with one that only “called upon” Iran to eschew such technology (Iran has since developed such missiles). It is not an exaggeration to say, as PM Netanyahu did in 2019, that the deal “paved Iran’s path” to nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them rather than blocking it.
The icing on the cake was the infusion of cash the JCPOA provided, which Iran promptly used to pay for its intervention in the Syrian civil war, the arming of Shiite militias in Iraq, support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and their attacks on Saudi Arabia, and of course the continued buildup of Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ missile arsenals – which the Iranian regime intends as the main weapon in its campaign to wipe Israel off the map (its nuclear-tipped missiles will provide a deterrent umbrella against Israeli retaliation).
Trump reversed Obama’s policy, exited the deal, and re-imposed sanctions to pressure Iran economically. Either the regime would collapse, or Iran would be forced to accept real restrictions on its nuclear and missile programs. The sanctions crushed the Iranian economy, and combined with the Covid epidemic and the domestic Iranian opposition, pushed the regime onto the ropes. The regime clearly understood this, and even tried to influence the 2020 American election against Trump.
The contention that Trump’s program didn’t work is false – the regime simply was able to hold out until he left office. Something that the NY Times et al don’t mention is that the agreement with China, the enrichment to 20%, and the introduction of new-generation centrifuges prohibited by the JCPOA didn’t occur until 2021, when Trump was either already gone or about to be. The Chinese undoubtedly knew that Trump would retaliate economically if they made their agreement with Iran during his term. And the Iranian regime clearly feared the US president, who had eliminated Qasem Soleimani, the single most dangerous terrorist operative in decades.
Biden’s policy – or that of whoever is making decisions for him – will empower the Iranian regime in reaching its objectives. And those objectives are quite ambitious: the establishment of a Shiite caliphate in the region, the replacement of various regimes (e.g., in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain), the destruction of the Jewish state, the control of all Middle Eastern fossil fuel resources, and so on. Iranian expansionism has already turned Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen into failed states whose populations are suffering enormously as a result.
If Iran continues with its nuclear program past Israel’s redlines, or if it orders its proxies to attack Israel, the result will be regional war. Such a war would be disastrous, especially for Lebanon, whose southern part has been turned by Iran’s Hezbollah proxy into one big launching pad for an estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. Israel’s defensive capabilities, although the most advanced in the world, could not deal with the number of weapons that would be fired at it, and so it would be necessary to respond by bombing southern Lebanon. That would cause thousands of casualties in a country already suffering from disease and total economic collapse.
The regime in Iran has made it clear that America, “the Great Satan,” is its most important enemy. It and its proxies have killed Americans in Lebanon and of course Iraq. It will work together with other enemies of the USA to harm it in any way it can. It even played a role in the 9/11 attacks. It isn’t unthinkable that it will provide nuclear material to terrorists in order to attack her in a “plausibly deniable” way.
Is enabling this regime’s regional takeover and nuclear project in America’s national interest? I don’t think so. The best way to forestall its plans is for the US to return to the policy of maximum pressure: to squeeze it economically until either it has no option but to retreat from its aggression, or it falls and is replaced by the more moderate government that most of the Iranian people would prefer.
Having said that, I am certain that this will not occur. What is going on is more than just a repudiation of Trump. Whoever is behind the project of strengthening the Iranian regime and enabling it to obtain its objectives knows what they are doing, and must share those objectives. The ideology of appointed officials is too consistent, the historical precedents too clear, and the functioning of the PR echo chamber too slick for it to be anything but deliberate.
Israel can only defend herself. It’s up to Americans to do whatever is necessary to move their country off this dangerous path.