Will Iran ‘pay the price’ for election interference?

Biden’s pledge raises important questions about his policy priorities, as well as about how Americans think about foreign foes and threats to democracy.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casting his vote in the 2016 elections. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani casting his vote in the 2016 elections. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It turns out that Iran wasn’t content to merely listen to former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s advice to wait patiently for President Donald Trump to be defeated. According to top American intelligence officials, Iran has been deploying its army of hackers and cyber spies to attempt to influence the presidential election.

When the issue was discussed at the last presidential debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the latter responded with a bold pledge:

“I made it clear that any country, no matter who it is, that interferes in American elections will pay a price. They will pay the price. It has been overwhelmingly clear in this election—I won’t even get into the last one—this election, that Russia has been involved. China has been involved to some degree, and now we learned that Iran is involved. They will pay a price if I’m elected.”

It’s not clear exactly what that would mean with respect to Russia and China, as American relations with those powers are complicated by a number of considerations, including, especially with Beijing, economic ties. But the question on Iran is fairly simple.

If Biden means what he says about making them “pay a price,” it should mean that he won’t reinstate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump has dismantled. It would mean going back on his intention to move towards lifting the crippling sanctions and the “maximum pressure” policy that Trump imposed on Tehran in order to force a renegotiation of the scandalously weak pact that former President Barack Obama and Biden championed. More to the point, it would mean embracing, rather than giving up, as Democrats have been preaching for the last four years: the quest to include prohibitions on Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism and illegal missile-building in a new deal.

And, if not, then what exactly did his promise to make them pay mean?

The joint press conference held earlier this week with John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, and FBI director Christopher Wray spoke of Tehran’s agents harvesting voter information to send out threatening demands supposedly from the extremist Proud Boys telling recipients to vote for Trump so as to discredit the president.

Although this is troubling, as with the apparently even more extensive Russian hacking operations going on, Iran hasn’t penetrated American voter-registration or ballot-counting systems. And though this act of voter intimidation is deeply troubling, illegal and should be treated as a threat to U.S. national sovereignty, it’s not clear how many, if any at all, voters are going to be persuaded to vote for Biden, which is what the Iranians are hoping, because of their actions. The same is true for Russian efforts to possibly help Trump either now or back in 2016.

But we’re still left with the question as to how seriously to take Biden’s pledge about retaliating for these attacks on American democracy.

The question of foreign intervention has, unfortunately, become tied to partisan concerns in large measure because Democrats spent the years after the 2016 election blaming Moscow for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, in addition to pushing a false narrative about Trump colluding with the Russians.

Like any conspiracy theory, it’s become something of a reflex reaction to anything that might possibly harm their prospects. The willingness of many in the mainstream press to refuse to report on the accusations raised about conflicts of interest involving Hunter Biden and his father showed just how partisan many outlets have become. Their cheerleading for the actions of social-media giants like Facebook and Twitter to censor reports about a legitimate news story so as to aid Biden’s chances is equally appalling. That’s even more troubling, as it is now clear that—whether or not the substance of the Hunter Biden story is enough to change anyone’s vote—attempts to claim the discussion as purely a Russian intelligence plant are unsubstantiated, as even The New York Times was forced to admit.

Just as not everything that might hurt Trump is the work of China or Iran, not everything that undermines Biden is a Russian plot. Yet the way these accusations have become inextricably tied to political discourse illustrates just how insidious this topic has become. There is a long tradition of fear-mongering about foreign threats, both real and unsubstantial, in American politics. Only eight years ago, Democrats laughed along with Obama when he mocked Mitt Romney, saying that Russia was America’s chief geopolitical foe. Now, like some parody of 1950s’ right-wingers, they see a Russian under every bed and are quick to label anyone who disagrees as either an agent of Moscow or under their influence.

Understanding the need to avoid hysteria about the subject does not obviate the responsibility to respond to threats. Trump hurt himself because of his refusal to speak out more strongly against Russian interference. That’s part of the reason why Biden was willing to go so far out on a limb to pledge retribution for election interference. Now that he has done so, it’s necessary to ask if he is truly willing to take his threats to their logical conclusion.

Understanding that Iran was a genuine threat to American security used to be a consensus issue. That was until Obama’s commitment to appease Tehran in order to obtain a worthless nuclear pact became a litmus test of loyalty to his administration that Democrats were obliged to accept. Should Biden win the presidency, there can be no better test of his desire to be his own person, rather than a front man for a third Obama term, than on Iran.

If he wants them to pay, then let him prove he meant it by retaining sanctions and forcing the regime’s leaders, as Trump intends to do, to choose between economic disaster and renegotiation. If not, his words in the debate were just so much empty and false rhetoric.

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

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