For Biden administration officials, their inability to achieve their top foreign-policy priority is both frustrating and puzzling. Their surprise at their inability to influence Iran to engage in diplomacy that is at least theoretically aimed at preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is deserving of scorn. But what follows next is far more important than their current embarrassment over the abysmal failure of the renewed nuclear talks held last week in Vienna.
If, as seems likely, the administration’s response to Iran’s hardball tactics is to seek to further appease the regime rather than to summon the courage to begin acting in the interests of the security of the West and ratcheting up the pressure on the Iranians, then that will be a disaster. And it will be one with many unforeseen and serious implications, of which only one is the likelihood that the world will accept that the Islamist regime’s quest for nuclear status will have succeeded.
So far, the response from President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team is far from encouraging. The Iranians arrived in Vienna behaving as if they believe Biden is prepared to pay a high price for their agreeing to even a watered-down version of the already dangerously weak 2015 nuclear pact. Their demands for an end not just to the sanctions relating to their illegal nuclear activities but also those relating to its status as the world’s leading state sponsor of international terrorism left the Biden team stunned. But as White House spokesperson Jen Psaki reaffirmed last week, no one in the administration is drawing the appropriate conclusions from Iran’s conduct about the futility of the current diplomatic track.
Nor does it appear that anyone in Washington or among the ranks of America’s European allies is paying the least attention to the statements of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett about the need for the West to develop a “different toolkit” or Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s talk about building a broad coalition of nations dedicated to stopping Iran’s nuclear quest.
The Biden team pledged to return the United States to the Iran nuclear deal with the help of many of those in the current administration who also served under former President Barack Obama. The band of Obama alumni, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sherman and former nuclear negotiator and current Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, had anticipated that a grateful Tehran would happily return to the weak agreement they had worked to negotiate. That pact not only gave it a pass for illegal missile building and terrorism; it would expire by the end of the decade, giving Iran a legal path to a nuclear weapon.
To their surprise, they soon discovered after returning to office in January that the Islamic Republic wasn’t going along with their plans. Once Biden returned the United States to the pact that former President Donald Trump had rightly trashed as unconscionably weak, the Iranians wouldn’t follow the script. Instead, they’ve spent the last 11 months behaving much as they did from 2013 to 2015 when they forced Obama and Kerry to back down, time and again, and agree to concession after concession. In addition to that, they’ve begun increasing their illicit nuclear activities getting closer to the point where the advanced nuclear program that Obama let them keep can race to create a weapon.
Tehran clearly believes that Biden hasn’t the stomach for a confrontation of any sort—either diplomatic or military. It seems sure that the United States will agree to any piece of paper that will allow the president to claim that he’s postponed an Iranian nuke, even if it means giving up all of the West’s leverage over the rogue state and ensuring that the ultimate purpose of this entire process—thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions—fails to achieve its goal.
The administration has no interest in a painful reassessment of its presumptions. It went to Vienna prepared to accept an interim agreement that would fall short of even a return to the 2015 deal. However, the price Iran wished to extract for what would be in the long run a meaningless accord would insulate Tehran against future Western pleas for a deal that would restrict their nukes or its aggressive behavior in the region.
Instead, there is only talk of scapegoats to blame for this lamentable state of affairs.
In the view of administration apologists, the chief scapegoat is Trump since they argue that it was his 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal that not only released Tehran from Obama’s restrictions but allowed them to race closer to a weapon. This formulation, which is being repeated endlessly by the administration’s mainstream media “echo chamber” on the issue, has it backwards. Trump understood that the West was going to have to get a better deal before Obama’s agreement expired and that it would be more easily accomplished sooner rather than later. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign gave the West its only chance to correct Obama’s mistakes. If he hadn’t been obsessed with overturning all of Trump’s policies, Biden could have followed up on his predecessor’s ability to push Iran into a corner with devastating sanctions that, while still capable of being further strengthened, nevertheless could have forced the Iranians to give ground. And so, Biden is the one who is giving Iran a permission slip to get closer to a weapon.
Another potential scapegoat is Israel. The administration is continuing to signal that it doesn’t support the Israelis’ ongoing campaign aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program. Biden officials have been leaking to the press their belief that Israel’s efforts can’t succeed and are only interfering with their diplomatic plans.
The administration and its cheering section in the press are also blaming Iranian “hardliners” for their failures. This faction has supposedly regained power in Tehran with the “election” of Ebrahim Raisi in the country’s faux democratic process in which the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides who may run. But the replacement of former President Hassan Rouhani, a reputed “moderate,” by Raisi is a distinction without a difference. Rouhani was no more likely to back down on Iran’s nuclear stands or its threats to eradicate Israel.
Excuses notwithstanding, it’s true that Biden has no good options in front of him. Even if anyone believed that the administration would use force to stop Iran—and virtually no one does—getting into an armed conflict with Tehran isn’t what the American people want. Yet the rational alternative, which is returning to Trump’s tough policies, isn’t something Biden seems to have the courage or the will to do.
Perhaps the administration believes that even more concessions in the form of dropped sanctions and cash inducements will get the Iranians to agree to any sort of agreement, no matter how toothless. What would follow such a deal would not merely be the international acceptance of Iran as a threshold nuclear state; it would also further enrich and empower Tehran to the point where its influence throughout the region would place both Sunni Arab states and Israel in direct peril from Iranian terrorist surrogates like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen. It would be nuclear blackmail.
No one in the White House believed that the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a turning point in the president’s popularity, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Letting Iran go nuclear would be just as disgraceful and most likely equally unpopular. The chaos and bloodshed that would be unleashed from giving in to Iranian demands will not merely be bad politics—it would forever stain Biden’s legacy in a way that could not be erased. Stopping that from happening will involve a test of character and vision that Biden has shown little evidence of possessing in his first, largely calamitous year as president.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.