What were the leaders of Iran’s Islamist regime thinking when they removed 27 cameras that were supposed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its nuclear program? Perhaps they meant it to test the mettle of the West and its willingness to hold them accountable for their behavior. It could be one more bargaining trick they’ve pulled out of their sleeve as they wait patiently for the Biden administration to crack and offer more concessions in order to get Tehran to sign on to a new and even weaker nuclear deal than the bargain it struck in 2015 under the Obama administration.
Or maybe the Iranians really don’t care what anyone in Washington or any other Western capital thinks, and it is part of their grand strategy to become, at the very least, a nuclear threshold state.
This latest provocation earned Iran a rebuke from the IAEA. That was followed by a stiff joint message from the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, urging Iran to heed the will of the international community and live up to their responsibilities under the original nuclear pact and IAEA regulations. But the idea that the ayatollahs and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) terrorist minions are worried about a slap on the wrist from the IAEA is a joke. Nor, after a year-and-a-half of playing President Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team for fools as they run out the clock in negotiations to get Tehran to return to Obama’s deal can anyone believe that such futile Western gestures present the slightest deterrent from pursuing its nuclear ambition.
The Iranians have been using this time to speed ahead with building up their capacity and enriching more uranium to the point where IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi is saying they are reaching the point where crossing the nuclear threshold “cannot be avoided.”
They’re not there yet and further still from assembling a bomb, which leaves the West time to take action—both in terms of crippling sanctions, a total embargo on Iranian oil, and, as a last resort, the threat of force from the world’s most powerful militaries. And, indeed, by thumbing their nose at the international community in this manner, the Iranians have given Biden every reason to pivot from his efforts at appeasement and to finally start acting like he means it when he says Iran will not get a weapon on his watch.
That’s a risk the Islamist regime seems prepared to take. If so, it’s largely because they’ve already measured up Biden and the gang of former Obama staffers running foreign policy on his watch and decided that it’s no risk at all. Weak figures like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Robert Malley—that veteran appeaser of terrorists in charge of Iran policy—are committed to diplomacy for its own sake. They are so averse to ratcheting up pressure on this rogue regime that it’s clear there are virtually no circumstances under which anyone can imagine that they will call Tehran’s bluff and return to the only sane policy imaginable with respect to Iran. That involves the aforesaid sanctions, an embargo and a credible threat of military action.
Of course, doing that would necessitate admitting that they were wrong and, horror of horrors, former President Donald Trump was right to understand that the only possible response to the empowerment and enrichment of Iran that was achieved by Obama’s pact was to withdraw from it and start working towards Iran’s total isolation. Trump’s strategy was a gamble since it involved the possibility that Iran would race to a weapon before the West could apply all of its leverage.
Yet to his credit, Trump understood that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was put in place by his predecessor didn’t just kick the can down the road in terms of stopping Iran’s nuclear threat. It guaranteed that Iran would get a nuclear weapon with Western approval by the end of the 2020s and would leave Tehran far more powerful than it would have otherwise become. Eventually, an American president was going to have to start the process of forcing Iran to renegotiate the deal, and the sooner that started, the better the chances of success.
Needless to say, from the point of view of the Biden administration, conceding that their reversal of Trump’s policy and doubling down appeasement isn’t working would be a worse calamity than an Iranian nuclear weapon. For Democrats, the idea of undoing the damage that Trump supposedly did to American foreign policy is a matter of religious faith rather than sober analysis. They are so committed to the notion that his administration was a force for evil that it has blinded them to the realities of the Middle East.
Still, the Biden team has other reasons for being soft on Iran.
At present, the administration is almost completely fixated on the war between Russia and Ukraine. Granted, the aggression committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime was more than illegal. It undermined the stability of Europe and has resulted in the sort of mass casualties not seen on the continent since World War II. It is to be hoped that, combined with the stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance, the massive aid given to Kyiv by the United States and its allies will both help them deplete the threat posed by the Russian military and send a powerful message to China that it should not believe it can get away with similar aggression against Taiwan.
But the administration’s tunnel vision on Russia, a country that has been exposed as a second-rate power—albeit one with nuclear weapons that shouldn’t be pressed too far—has allowed it to ignore the threat Iran is posing to American allies in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Malley and many others serving under Biden seem to have bought into the delusion, first floated by Obama that Iran could be persuaded to “get right with the world.” That mistaken idea would lead the United States to reconfigure its Middle Eastern policy to allow for a rapprochement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism while slighting or repudiating Israel and its Arab friends.
Biden is trying to distance himself from Saudi Arabia—a friendly despotic regime that many Democrats view with more distaste than Iran—and at the same time get them to pump more oil to reduce the rising price of gas that is killing the Democrats in the polls. But he also appears eager to find a way to get Iranian oil flowing to the world.
That may be why Iran is upping the ante in its long-running standoff with the administration in the nuclear talks in Vienna. Tehran figures that if it’s patient enough, Biden will eventually cave on the last sticking points in the negotiations—like taking the IRGC off the list of terrorist organizations—and a new deal can be signed to make the Islamic regime richer and stronger (and eventually get a nuke anyway). Since they don’t think Biden will ever take action against them even if they do break out to a weapon, every provocation and breach of international law comes with a get-out-of-jail-free card signed by the president.
The saddest aspect of this debacle is that there is still an opportunity for Biden to stiffen his spine and take the sort of actions that will make it clear to the ayatollahs that if they continue on this path, it will lead to the impoverishment of their country and potential military conflict that they cannot win. Even worse is the realization that Biden is not only unwilling to be honest about the situation, but that he may be incapable of mustering the courage to do what needs to be done to carry out his promise about stopping Iran from going nuclear.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.