How will Biden respond to Iran’s ‘no’ to a new deal?

Tehran has already signaled that it won’t renegotiate Obama’s pact. How will a new president change that if he’s already given up all of his leverage?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 17, 2019. Credit: Balk/MSC via Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 17, 2019. Credit: Balk/MSC via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

We didn’t have to wait until after Jan. 20 for the first exchange of positions between the next American administration and the Iranian regime. In an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President-elect Joe Biden erased any doubt that the United States will re-enter the nuclear deal with Tehran. And rather than waiting to give their response, the Iranians shot back immediately that they would accept no changes to that deal, as Biden said he would seek after putting it back in place.

Biden’s stand was not surprising. Friedman is a shameless self-promoter and poseur as a deep thinker on foreign policy. He’s also a longtime critic of Israel and a member in good standing of the media “echo chamber” that led the cheerleading for the 2015 nuclear pact during the Obama administration. Nevertheless, he tried to steer Biden towards a more rational position than the one we’ve been hearing from Democrats during the election, as well as one rooted in the contemporary strategic situation rather than the assumptions that guided his old boss.

Friedman tried to persuade Biden to shift the focus of his approach to Iran and seek to curtail Iran’s illegal and highly dangerous missile production as part of any return to diplomacy with Tehran rather than an exclusive focus on the nuclear issue. He also tried to indicate that holding onto the leverage over the Iranians that Biden would inherit from President Donald Trump in the form of tough sanctions, rather than merely turn back the clock to January 2017, was not necessarily a bad idea.

But Biden was having none of it. Responding with his characteristic impatience with any ideas that deviate from whatever piece of conventional wisdom he has lazily attached himself to, he dismissed Friedman’s suggestion.

As Friedman related in his column, Biden responded by saying, “Look, there’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilizing the region,” said Biden. But the fact is that “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.”

In other words, he was sticking like glue to the same position that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry adopted during their negotiations with Iran. They ignored Iran’s missiles, its status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and its open boasts of achieving regional hegemony by having its surrogates and auxiliaries take control of countries around the region. They focused solely on the nuclear issue, which, to be fair, is an existential threat to both the region and the West.

But in doing so—and by resolving to get a deal no matter how high a price they had to pay or how little the Islamist regime would give in return—Obama and Kerry set the stage for the diplomatic disaster that ensued. Instead of negotiating a deal that would fulfill his 2012 campaign promise to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, he wound up accepting one that left it in place and would, via sunset provisions that the Iranians insisted on, end up giving the ayatollahs a path to a nuclear weapon with Western approval.

That allowed Obama to pretend that he had solved the problem of the Iranian nuclear threat. But all he had actually accomplished was to leave his successors a ticking time bomb that, sooner or later, they would be forced to deal with.

Rather than kicking the can down the road as his predecessor had done, Trump seized the nettle, withdrew from Obama’s sham and implemented a “maximum pressure” policy of sanctions designed to eventually force the Iranians to renegotiate. Taking the advice of their former negotiating partner Kerry, the Iranians decided to wait Trump out and hope for a softer touch to replace him in 2021.

Unfortunately, if Biden sticks to what he told Friedman, that’s exactly what they will get.

By pledging to return to the deal first and to drop sanctions—and only then attempt to renegotiate the pact in order to eliminate the sunset provisions, as well as maintain the free pass Obama granted Iran for its missiles, terrorism and adventurism—Biden is setting himself up for failure. If restoring the weak deal, which Iran will be only to happen to pretend to comply with, the clock will resume ticking towards an Iranian bomb.

You don’t have to accept Trump’s self-evaluation as a great dealmaker to understand that his proposed path to a better nuclear deal made more sense. If the United States gives up all its leverage first and only then seeks to improve the nuclear pact, as Biden appears bent on doing, the chances of success are slim and none.

The Iranians had their way with Obama and Kerry because they sensed their desperation. Every time Iran said “no” to their demands, the United States responded by agreeing to drop the issue.

Now they’re hoping to repeat that pattern with Biden—a president who will likely have other priorities once in office. Moreover, with a foreign-policy team composed entirely of Obama alumni who have spent the last four years claiming that everything they did was right despite all evidence to the contrary, coupled with a left-wing Democratic Party activist base that will regard a tough stand on Iran as unacceptable, Biden will have a lot of reasons to accept the Iranians’ rebuff and move on to other issues.

The question here is not one about Biden’s sympathy for Israel or even whether he has a sufficient grasp of the threat that Iran poses. Even if he has no desire to endanger Israel—or its Arab allies, who are equally incensed at the idea of Biden reversing Trump’s stands on Iran—and genuinely wants to reduce the danger Tehran poses, it’s impossible to view this first exchange between the next president and the Islamist regime with anything but dismay.

If Biden really wants to reduce the danger to the world from Iran, then he has to wake up and realize that the situation has changed since Obama and Kerry were squandering their leverage with Iran back in 2013.

The idea that unless the nuclear deal is restored, Iran will quickly acquire a bomb is false. The danger is not that it will tempt fate and the possibility of uniting the West (including reluctant European nations that would rather profit from trade with Tehran than to stop it from attacking its neighbors) by building a weapon now. The problem is what happens if the West does nothing and sticks to the false belief that Obama’s deal protected anyone.

As a new president, Biden still has the opportunity to begin negotiating in a manner that has a chance of advancing American interests. But if he sticks to what he told Friedman, it’s likely that the Iranians will think he is as easy a mark as Obama and Kerry turned out to be. That would be disastrous for the United States and those who still look to it for leadership.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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