February 25, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Biden’s Iran appeasement

February 25, 2021 | Washington Examiner

Biden’s Iran appeasement

Barack Obama’s controversial Iran policy centered on the nuclear deal, which failed to halt the clerical regime’s atomic ambitions and strengthened the Islamic Republic and its allies throughout the Middle East while downgrading America’s relations with traditional allies such as Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies.

For the first time in centuries, Iran is the dominant foreign power in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Sanaa. Obama believed that Washington’s “friends as well as” the Iranians needed “to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

President Biden, Obama’s vice president for those eight years, appears to be reusing the playbook.

The Biden administration’s tone has already made clear its approach to Iran will be far more conciliatory than Donald Trump’s, though the White House administration hasn’t yet surrendered to Tehran’s demand to lift all sanctions before any new negotiations take place. In February, Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, “If Iran comes back into full compliance with the obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken likewise stated the Biden administration “would work with them to get something that is longer and stronger, and also deal with some of the other challenges that Iran poses, whether it’s its missile program, whether it’s its destabilizing activities in the region.”

However, the administration seems ready to double down on Obama’s policy of rapprochement rather than pursuing a stronger agreement. Biden has rehired much of Obama’s original Iran policy team, and as the old Washington adage goes, “personnel is policy.” After the Tehran regime’s attacks against U.S. military personnel in Irbil, Iraq, the administration rescinded the Trump administration’s letter triggering the reimposition of the UN weapons embargo on Iran. This paves the way for the Islamic Republic to purchase advanced Russian and Chinese arms. A week later, the administration launched a retaliatory attack against the Iran-backed Iraqi militias in Syria to create a wall of deterrence.

This week, Tehran announced that South Korea would release some of the billions of dollars of Tehran’s frozen oil revenue. Seoul most likely received Washington’s greenlight before making such a commitment. In January, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean tanker after months of increasing tensions between Tehran and Seoul over the frozen funds.

The Biden administration also removed the Houthis, Tehran’s Shiite ally in Yemen, from the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) as a goodwill gesture. Washington has also loosened restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York City.

American allies in the Middle East are looking on with trepidation. Biden began to take these moves without consulting them. Indeed, the president waited almost a month to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him long after speaking with other world leaders. Biden also began a new U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, including a review of and, at least, a temporary halt in arms sales to the kingdom.

Biden may even agree to relaxed monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, despite new revelations this month of undeclared nuclear activities. Earlier this year, Tehran announced it would stop implementing a nuclear monitoring agreement known as the Additional Protocol and refuse snap inspections of Iranian nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi rushed to Tehran to reach a deal and avert another crisis.

And he did reach a deal, most likely with the blessing of the Biden administration. The full details have yet to be revealed, but what has been reported so far is quite worrying.

For example, Tehran will apparently allow the IAEA’s monitoring equipment to remain in certain sites for the next three months, but the agency will not have access to what that equipment records. According to Iranian officials, if Washington lifts all sanctions over the next three months, the agency can access the recorded information; if not, Tehran will delete the information. If what we know so far is accurate, Grossi’s deal appears to have given up on snap inspections and legitimized the suspension of the monitoring regime known as the Additional Protocol.

After the IAEA and Tehran reached their deal, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mocked the United States and its European allies’ “arrogant” and “unjust rhetoric regarding Iran,” welcomed the suspension of the monitoring, and announced that Tehran might enrich uranium to the 60% level “to meet the country’s needs.”

The cleric surely now sees a Washington weakened by its eagerness to return to the nuclear deal and its desire to further retreat from its place of influence in the Middle East. With each concession, the administration strengthens Khamenei’s perception of American weakness. And after each concession, Tehran demands more.

For the president, the only way to get a better deal is to prove to Khamenei that he is neither weak nor eager. If not, the supreme leader will take him for a long ride. And with the pressure already easing, Khamenei is in no rush to negotiate while concessions keep coming. As Iranians say, the night is long and the dervish is awake.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Alireza Nader is a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power. Follow them on Twitter @AlirezaNader and @SGhasseminejad. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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