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Return to the status quo on Iran nukes isn’t enough

Biden’s adviser says he will keep sanctions in place until Iran returns to the nuclear deal. But merely restoring an agreement that gave Tehran a path to a weapon won’t work.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon (center) and Biden's National Security Advisor Antony Blinken (left) in the Oval Office on Nov. 4, 2010. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon (center) and Biden's National Security Advisor Antony Blinken (left) in the Oval Office on Nov. 4, 2010. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If you listen to Anthony Blinken, Iran shouldn’t celebrate the possibility that his boss, former Vice President Joe Biden, will become the next president. Blinken, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, is Biden’s chief foreign-policy adviser, and in recent appearances, he has tried to pour cold water on the notion that a Democratic victory in November will be a godsend to Tehran. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to know that the ayatollahs aren’t exactly worried about how tough Biden will be on them.

For the past two years, some prominent Democrats have been sending advice to Iran’s leaders asking them for patience. In May of 2018, The Boston Globe first reported that Blinken’s former boss, former Secretary of State John Kerry, had been conferring with his former negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The pair spent their time together “strategizing” about how to “wait out” the Trump administration until a Democrat was elected in 2020.

The point of that effort was to reassure the Iranians that if they could just hold on until January 2021, a new president would bring the United States back into the nuclear deal negotiated by Kerry. At that point, the tough economic sanctions that President Donald Trump had reimposed on Tehran would be lifted, and the rapprochement with the Islamist regime that had been the signature foreign-policy achievement of President Barack Obama would be restored.

Kerry’s promise, which, had it been conducted by someone who was not a darling of the mainstream press would be condemned as collusion with a hostile foreign power, is looking like it may become a reality. If you believe the polls, Biden is now favored to defeat Trump and, for all intents of purposes, give Obama the third term he thought he would have when Hillary Clinton was his designated successor in 2016.

Nevertheless, Blinken is trying to persuade centrist voters, and especially Jewish Democrats, that the assumption that Biden’s presidency will merely be a rerun of Obama is a mistake, especially when it concerns Iran.

Blinken, an early favorite to be the next National Security Advisor, as well as a possibility to head the State Department, has sounded a moderate note on Iran. He has been trying to distract from Kerry’s assurances and instead assert that lifting the sanctions on Iran will not be among the top priorities on a Biden “To Do” list next January.

According to Blinken, a putative Biden administration will keep the sanctions in place until Iran ceases its violations of the nuclear deal. That will, in effect, restore the situation to the status quo of January 2017 when Trump took office.

That makes sense to the foreign-policy establishment and the rest of the chattering classes who are anticipating the restoration of the Democratic ancien regime with the fervor of members of France’s Bourbon dynasty after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

According to Blinken, all of the trouble with Iran is solely the fault of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who have sought to force the Islamist regime to renounce its funding of international terrorism and illegal missile-building, as well as to give up their hopes for a nuclear weapon.

The sanctions have done much to curtail Iran’s efforts to spread terror via proxy groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis, with many of its auxiliaries publicly complaining that they are being starved of funds to the financial hardships Trump has imposed on Tehran. The campaign of “maximum pressure” has fueled dissent inside Iran’s repressive society and made the regime’s hold on power shakier than ever. If Trump is given the chance to keep squeezing the Iranians, inevitably they will have little choice but to start negotiating a new agreement that would make the world safer.

Blinken, however, argues that the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal has given the Iranians the excuse they were looking for to violate its loose terms and to return to activities that bring it closer to achieving their nuclear ambitions.

By making them return to observing the deal, Blinken says it will eliminate the danger of a quick Iranian “breakout” to a nuclear weapon. At that point, he argues, the United States will have the support of its Western allies, and even Russia and China, to begin renegotiating the nuclear pact to make it tougher.

While that sounds sensible, it’s exactly what Iran wants.

Biden and Blinken’s tacit acknowledgment that another deal is necessary betrays the fallacy at the heart of their proposed return to Obama’s strategy.

Iran was not only enriched and empowered by the nuclear deal; its leaders also knew that their tough bargaining against men like Obama, Kerry and Blinken, who were desperate for a deal at any price, gave them all they needed. Contrary to Obama’s campaign promises when he ran for re-election in 2012 pledging to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran retained its nuclear infrastructure and advanced research capability.

The deal also came with sunset provisions that ensured that within 10 to 15 years, all of the restrictions on their program would disappear, giving the ayatollahs a legal path to the ultimate weapon.

Should Biden lift sanctions, even after Iran returns to the provisions of Obama’s agreement, it will eliminate any leverage the West might have to force the rewriting of the deal to drop the sunset provisions. A restoration of the status quo doesn’t eliminate the threat of an Iranian nuke; it guarantees they will get one in the next decade.

In the wake of recent revelations from John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, there’s been a lot of focus in the last week on the president’s foreign-policy missteps. But on Iran, Trump and Pompeo effectively refuted Obama’s assumptions that the only choice there was appeasement or war, which Bolton seemed to favor. By avoiding being goaded into a military confrontation with Tehran, Trump has steadily increased the pressure on the regime and made it possible to head off Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and force them to give up the victories Obama handed them.

Far from worrying about Biden being tougher than Obama, the Iranians seem to be heeding Kerry’s advice about simply waiting out Trump. Biden and his adviser may think that can lead to a safer Middle East, but the moment they lift sanctions, Iran’s entry into the list of nuclear powers will be assured.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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