In the two months since Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States, the new administration has been dancing around the question of how exactly to accomplish his campaign pledge to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Biden is determined to reinstate the pact that former President Donald Trump trashed in 2018. But rather than merely lift sanctions and embrace the agreement that was the signature foreign-policy accomplishment of his former boss, President Barack Obama, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were cautious about their public statements on the issue. Yet while they claimed that they needed Iran to roll back its efforts to pursue their nuclear goal, it was also no secret that backchannel efforts were underway to find a way to get Tehran to agree to come back into compliance with the weak terms of the 2015 deal.
Biden and Blinken have been simultaneously trying to reassure critics that they were serious about restraining Iran while also repeatedly signaling Tehran that they will make it worth its while to come to the table.
But while the new administration was taking its time in trying to work out its policy direction, the Iranians weren’t wasting any time. This past weekend, they signed a $400 billion agreement with China that could decisively alter the correlation of forces in the Middle East.
The pact is a potential game-changer in that it not only gives Iran a reliable market to sell its oil, albeit at a discounted price, but also will involve massive Chinese investment in improving Iran’s infrastructure, military cooperation and intelligence-sharing. In one bold stroke, China is seeking to undermine any effort to isolate Iran so as to pressure it to give up its nuclear option. The deepening relationship between Tehran and Beijing also means that China is backing the ayatollahs against any effort to restrain their missile building, as well as their use of terrorism. In essence, China is taking a great leap forward towards asserting itself as an international superpower whose interests in the Middle East will be linked to those of the Islamist regime.
As JNS reported, China’s main interest in propping up Iran is to undermine the United States. While many Americans have downplayed the notion of a superpower rivalry between the two nations as a function of over-the-top Trump fear-mongering, this agreement is one more piece of evidence that the Chinese are deadly serious about exerting their influence around the world in ways that hurt American interests and those of its allies. This blow to the security of both Israel and the Arab states in the region is simply collateral damage to a Chinese decision to embrace Iran as its Middle East proxy.
The question is: What will Biden do about it? The early indications are not encouraging.
In the days since the announcement of the China-Iran pact, Washington has yet to publicly speak out on the strategic partnership. Considering that this is arguably the most dangerous development in the region in several years, that silence speaks volumes not only about the Biden foreign-policy team’s lack of a coherent approach to the main threat to U.S. security as well as to how to deal with Iran. An optimist would hope that the administration is merely quietly assessing its options before responding. But given that Biden’s advisers are a collection of veteran advocates of appeasement of Iran, it’s also possible that rather than seeking to stymy this new deadly alliance of dangerous tyrannical regimes, they may simply use it as an excuse to allow Iran off the hook. If so, then this may be the moment when the pretense that Biden is serious about stopping an Iranian nuclear weapon begins to be dropped.
Iran is counting on its playing of the China card dealing a devastating blow to any hopes of forcing it to make concessions before returning to the dangerously weak terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. It is also likely assuming that the same collection of Obama administration alumni who bowed to Tehran’s every demand in the negotiations that took place between 2013 and 2015 will similarly give up any idea of strengthening that agreement because of Iran’s stated refusal to do so. It’s imperative that the sunset clauses that would allow the Islamic regime a legal path to a weapon by the end of the 2020s be removed. Still, the Iranians may be forgiven for thinking that with China now openly backing them and demanding that Biden end any effort to pressure into compliance with the deal, the path to their nuclear ambition has just been cleared.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As The New York Times noted, it isn’t as simple as China simply coming to Iran’s rescue. As long as American sanctions are in place, the implementation of the new pact would place Beijing in the position of having to choose between having an economic relationship with the world’s largest economy or one that’s a financial basket case. After all, America’s Western allies wanted to continue doing business with Iran and override Trump’s determination to isolate and force it to renegotiate the nuclear deal. Despite the predictions of the same Obama alumni that are now running national security under Biden that his “maximum pressure” campaign would flop, the Europeans were forced to go along with American sanctions lest they find themselves subject to onerous penalties that would have done damage to their economies.
The timing of the China-Iran deal is no accident. This deal has been in the works since last summer. The Chinese knew that Trump would have responded to their intervention in the Middle East and might not have hesitated to implement sanctions that would have hurt them. They undoubtedly decided to wait and see if he would be re-elected before putting it into motion. They were hoping, as were the Iranians (who were advised by former Secretary of State John Kerry to wait patiently for a Democrat to replace Trump), that Biden would let them get away with it.
That leaves Biden with a choice. He can supinely accept the new China-Iran alliance and give up any serious effort to pursue a new nuclear deal. Or he can do what Trump might have done and send a strong message to Beijing and Tehran that America is still the world’s only true superpower, and that any nation that seeks to destabilize the Middle East in this fashion will pay a heavy economic price they can’t afford.
For all too many on the left, the obsession with Russia and attempting to prove the myth of its collusion with Trump became the sole focus of their foreign-policy outlook. By contrast, they have been generally slow to recognize the strategic threat from China, with even some, like anti-Zionist Peter Beinart, claiming that any attention paid to its hostile actions and culpability for the coronavirus pandemic was a product of Trump’s alleged xenophobia.
The Biden team has done a relatively good job on focusing on Chinese human-rights violations in Hong Kong, against the Uyghurs and other outrages. But mere lip service to that cause does nothing to deter Beijing.
Though it came earlier than the new administration wanted, this is its first major foreign-policy challenge. A great deal—for the United States, Israel and the Middle East—depends on whether its response is sufficiently strong to back the Chinese down and remind Iran that it must relinquish its ambitions for both a nuke and regional hegemony. If the administration fails to do that, then the implications for American security and that of the Middle East are more ominous and far-reaching than anyone in Washington seems to realize.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.