(August 10, 2021 / JNS) What does a guy have to do to get thrown out of nuclear arms negotiations, anyway?
That may be the question newly-elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi asked himself when he officially took office last week. Raisi and his fellow hardliners seem to have been doing everything in their power to convince the Biden administration that their continued efforts to resurrect the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement is a waste of time. But the president’s negotiators continue to persevere—or at least to indicate that they are still ready to persevere if only the Iranians would actually meet with them.
Even before the Iranian team put the meetings on hold shortly after Raisi’s election back in June, they were still refusing to meet with their American counterparts in person, leaving it to European functionaries to engage in shuttle diplomacy between the two nations most central to any potential agreement. It would seem logical that negotiations on such sensitive topics would require a sufficient level of mutual trust that the two parties could at least be in the same room together. But apparently not.
Raisi’s ascent to the presidency was only one in a series of provocations that might have ended the talks under more normal circumstances. Over the course of his career, Iran’s new president became notorious for his alleged role in the execution of thousands of political prisoners and members of leftist armed groups. (Amnesty International says Raisi must be investigated for “crimes against humanity” and United Nations officials have called for an independent inquiry into his role in the mass deaths.) His election, after a campaign in which his credible opponents were barred from the ballot, resulted in a record-low turnout in which millions of Iranian voters stayed away from the polls in protest.
Shortly after Raisi had been declared the winner, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria launched attacks on U.S. troops in those countries. The terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, both trained and financed by Iran’s military, have attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon respectively. None of these acts of aggression have stopped the nuclear negotiations. Even allegations that Tehran had planned to kidnap an American citizen, a Brooklyn-based Iranian American journalist who has criticized the regime, did not deter the Biden administration’s push for additional talks.
So there was little surprise last week after Iran carried out a fatal drone strike on an Israel-linked oil tanker off the coast of Oman. Tehran denied that they had anything to do with it. The United States and the United Kingdom joined Israel in condemning the attack and cited evidence that supported their allegations. But while Biden administration officials criticized Iran’s belligerence on one hand, their efforts to re-start the nuclear negotiations have continued apace.
Biden’s advisers have argued from the beginning that cutting off the talks would simply clear the way for Iran to advance its efforts toward nuclear capability. But that is exactly what is happening anyway, and if Raisi appoints his own negotiating team the process will be prolonged even further. And Tehran’s increasing comfort in deploying ballistic weapons and terrorist activity suggests that including those types of activities in a follow-up agreement (let alone a re-negotiated JCPOA) is even less likely than before.
The other possibility is that Biden understands that the likelihood of cajoling Iran’s leaders back into a substantive nuclear agreement is small and that his real purpose for continuing to go through this charade is to demonstrate to the Europeans that he is serious about expending every possible effort to achieve a new deal.
As I’ve written about in this space before, Biden’s most important geopolitical goals are far from the Middle East. His primary focus has always been on threats from China and Russia, and he knows that will require the support and cooperation of Western Europe to prevail in those confrontations. So it’s entirely possible that going through the motions with Iran is his way of reassuring the Europeans that they can once again think of the U.S. as reliable allies.
But this pretense cannot continue indefinitely. Every time the Iranian government engages in belligerent activity without being held accountable, they are further emboldened. At a certain point, Biden will need to push back. Regardless of how important he believes a new nuclear agreement to be, enabling a menace like Tehran will only lead to less desirable and more dangerous outcomes.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.
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