The Biden administration appears to believe that Iran’s threat to the world consists only of its nuclear program and the possibility of nuclear war. It has lifted sanctions on Tehran and the terrorist designation from the Houthis of Yemen. It is considering lifting the terror designation from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The goal is to achieve an Iranian signature on a restoration of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a plan to postpone, not eliminate, the possibility of Iranian nuclear-weapons capability.
But Iran, it could be argued, might have been willing to accept delays in the program in exchange for time, space and money to pursue its long-term conventional goals, of which it has many. Tehran itself postponed talks from June 2021 to February 2022, indicating that speed is of no particular interest. We can’t know for certain, but one might assume there was no postponement of either nuclear or conventional build-up during that time. What we do know for certain is that the United States has made ever more conventional-level concessions to Iran.
This is not to suggest Iran doesn’t want to acquire nuclear-weapons capability—surely, it does.
Iran, as a number of its officials have said over the years, wants to prevent being toppled the way Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was, or Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. It wants to prevent a 20-year U.S.-led invasion like that of Afghanistan. Nuclear-armed North Korea, not to mention Russia and China, have received far more forbearance from the United States than the leaders of Iraq, Libya, Egypt or the Afghan people. Yes, all things considered, it’s better to be a nuclear-capable Iran than not.
But if delay is part of a program to nail conventional concessions first, the Biden administration policy is a huge win for Iran and a huge loss for countries in Iran’s sights: traditional allies in the Gulf plus Israel, as well as Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Kuwait.
In an early move, the administration removed the terrorist designation from the Iranian-armed and trained Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have since been attacking civilian and industrial sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including one aimed at Dubai during the visit of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog in February.
Another early move with longer-term consequences was a little-noticed agreement with South Korea in March 2021 to permit the unfreezing of up to a billion dollars in Iranian assets that were restricted after Iran hijacked a South Korean ship. First, the money was directed to the United Nations in payment for Iran’s arrears and have its voting rights restored. This resulted directly in Iran joining the U.N. committee on women’s rights. In June 2022, South Korean money went directly to the Iranian government.
In September 2021, the Biden administration removed most of the U.S.-operated Patriot missile batteries from the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, suggesting those countries could defend themselves. Concurrently, however, Biden announced a freeze on missile sales to Saudi Arabia (the missiles that were supposed to go in the Patriot system that the Saudis were supposed to use to defend themselves in our absence). In November, Biden did approve a missile sale to the Saudis, but those missiles are just now beginning to arrive.
Along the way, America castigated Saudi Arabia for its human-rights policies—not entirely undeservedly, but the absence of focus on Iran’s human-rights violations was a signal to Iran, which had the highest known number of executions in 2021. China is presumed to have the most by thousands, but the organization counting admitted that it had no hard numbers. China has been buying Iranian oil with American acquiescence.
And now, the White House suggests it might lift the terror designation on the IRGC in exchange “specifically not to target Americans in the Middle East,” according to a diplomatic source as reported in The Jerusalem Post. The IRGC is the organization that wrecked Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and is responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. But more, the IRGC controls an enormous percentage of the Iranian economy. Even if certain individual IRGC leaders remain under sanction, foreign companies will be able to do business with subsidiaries. Russia and China are lined up.
Conventional capabilities and conventional prizes are what Iran covets. Nukes are for later, but progress is essential for the protection of the mullahs. Current administration policy towards Iran pays little heed to the arming and training of terror forces around the region; efforts to control the Persian Gulf and Red Sea outlets to the Indian Ocean; or the goal of pushing the United States out of the region. Money and the veneer of respectability for Tehran will ensure a steady stream of funds, arms and allies in the form of Russia and China.
And in the process, Biden and company are pushing away traditional allies and potential allies, reducing the willingness of countries to work with us in a variety of regions.
All this for a new Iranian signature on a deal that didn’t work the first time.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.
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