November 30, 2023 | National Review
Biden’s Imaginary Iran
Tehran’s hostility is clear, so why does the White House keep ignoring it?
November 30, 2023 | National Review
Biden’s Imaginary Iran
Tehran’s hostility is clear, so why does the White House keep ignoring it?
Hours before nearly 300,000 Americans gathered on the National Mall to show solidarity with Israel and condemn Hamas terrorism, the Biden administration sent a notification to Capitol Hill that upwards of $10 billion would be made available to Iran, the chief sponsor of that terrorism and the ultimate culprit behind the October 7 massacre.
Israel is surrounded by active terror threats funded and coordinated by Tehran — what the mullahs call their “ring of fire.” Iran’s Hezbollah subsidiary, with its 150,000 rockets in Lebanon, fires a daily dose of anti-tank guided missiles, rockets, and drones. Iranian-backed terror cells in Judea and Samaria plot daily attacks, forcing Israeli military interdiction. The Houthis in Yemen, owned and operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, fire ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones toward Israel and the U.S. military — and most recently seized an Israeli-connected merchant vessel in the Red Sea. An Iranian-tied group in Syria even reportedly launched a drone attack that reached Israel’s southern tip in Eilat.
Meanwhile, Iran’s terror groups in Iraq and Syria wage daily warfare against U.S. forces in both countries, injuring dozens of American troops. A recent attack left a contractor dead.
How could any American president think it wise — at this very moment — to open the money spigot for the financial sponsor behind so much mayhem? The answer goes back to 2015, when President Barack Obama attempted to reset the strategic paradigm of the Middle East by ceding power and influence to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For most Americans, this was just a “nuclear deal” (known officially as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) accompanied by a political fight over whether a policy of appeasement or one of confrontation would best prevent the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism from developing some of the world’s most destructive weapons. For Obama and his closest advisers, it was an opportunity to right what they perceived as America’s past injustices. They believed that Iran hated America, sponsored terrorism, and proliferated missiles partly because America had wronged the people of Iran.
“I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes,” Obama told the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in 2015. “And if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have . . . in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative.”
The Obama administration believed that offering an olive branch and thawing relations would moderate the regime. And by increasing Iran’s access to resources and its power projection in the Middle East, an equilibrium could be achieved between Shiite and Sunni rivals that would lead to an era of stability and U.S. withdrawal from the region.
This, of course, proved a strategic disaster, increasing the threat of military conflict throughout the Middle East instead of decreasing it. Lifting sanctions, shutting down Justice Department operations, and persuading the Defense Department to make itself more dependent on a sworn enemy of America that sponsors terrorism and seeks nuclear weapons leads to what you might expect — more terrorism, greater nuclear advances, and a vulnerable military-force posture.
Before the nuclear deal, Iran was a bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill. An amendment to impose sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran passed the U.S. Senate 100–0 in late 2011. And while the 2015 debate over the deal saw many House and Senate Democrats join with Republicans in opposition, once the agreement moved forward — cementing a foreign-policy legacy for a president beloved by his liberal base — it became a partisan political football.
Donald Trump’s pledge to rip up the deal — and his eventual fulfillment of that promise — further politicized American debate over Iran. Policies that had won unanimous support just eight years earlier were condemned by Democrats because of Trump’s embrace.
It didn’t matter to some elected officials that Iran had used the nuclear deal to launch more missiles than ever before, expand its terror presence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the West Bank, and Gaza, and develop advanced uranium centrifuges to one day race toward the nuclear threshold. It didn’t matter to supporters of the nuclear deal when Israel’s Mossad discovered a secret archive of nuclear-weapons documents hidden in Tehran — a finding that revealed a number of previously unknown nuclear sites and exposed how Iran had deceived negotiators and inspectors for years. It didn’t even matter that the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure had been producing results: less funding for terrorism, economic instability in Iran, and a pro-Western population attempting to revolt against their dictators in November 2019. All that mattered was preserving Obama’s deal and reversing every policy decision Donald Trump ever made.
Candidate Joe Biden accordingly vowed to seek a quick return to the nuclear deal and to end the Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign. During Biden’s transition, Iran tested the incoming president’s resolve by beginning to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity — a provocation Tehran had avoided during the Trump administration.
Despite this escalation, once in office, President Biden shifted American policy from pressure to accommodation in hopes of facilitating the restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Biden removed the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, rescinded the American snapback of U.N. sanctions at the Security Council, relaxed sanctions to free up cash for Iran to pay some debts and increase oil exports to China, pulled European allies back from censuring Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and allowed Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria to attack U.S. forces with near impunity. In the hope of brokering a deal quickly, Biden appointed Robert Malley (who has since been placed on indefinite unpaid leave pending a federal investigation into the mishandling of classified information) to be his special envoy despite Malley’s dovishness on Iran and its terror proxies. Maximum pressure had been replaced by deference.
Iran’s response to America’s taking its foot off the sanctions pedal was escalation on all fronts. What had begun in January 2021 as 20 percent enrichment at the underground facility at Fordow became the production of 60 percent enriched uranium — the highest in Iranian history — by April. By August 2021, Iran was producing uranium metal, a material used in nuclear-weapon cores. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, the regime would dramatically increase the installation of advanced centrifuges to expand its enrichment capacity while limiting the IAEA’s ability to verify Iranian activity at its centrifuge-manufacturing plant. Iran rushed forward with the construction of a new nuclear facility near Natanz that reportedly is being built 100 meters underground, potentially immunizing it against Israeli and even American bombs. Attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria also escalated throughout this period — with General Erik Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, testifying this March that Iranian proxies had attacked U.S. troops 78 times using drones and rockets since January 2021.
Throughout it all, Team Biden could never take “No” for an answer. Rather than walk away and return to a policy of pressure and deterrence, the White House grew more desperate, even turning to Russia for help. A January 2022 headline in Foreign Policy screamed: “The Iran Nuclear Talks’ Breakout Player: Love him or hate him, Russia’s man in Vienna has become the Iran deal’s unofficial spokesman.” Indeed, Russian ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov was caught on camera bragging about how much he and the Iranians had extracted from Malley in negotiations.
But just as American and Russian officials were predicting an imminent deal, with the U.S. even issuing a sanctions waiver to authorize Russian support of Iran’s nuclear program, Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine threw a wrench into the works. Moscow insisted that no deal could move forward without a broad exemption that allowed Russia to evade Western sanctions via Iran. Putin and Khamenei pulled the plug.
But for the Biden administration, the concessions never ended. After Iran had rejected three compelling offers in a row, the answer for the White House was simply to offer more concessions — this time economic-sanctions relief for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
By early August 2022, the European Union put forward what it claimed would be the final draft of a proposed new deal for Iran to accept or reject. Some might believe that Iran’s transfers of armed drones to Russia became a second impediment to dealmaking, but that is simply not the case. The United States began warning that Iran might transfer drones to Russia in July 2022 and still negotiated a deal that would subsidize and potentially legitimize those transfers for another two months. Iran and the United States traded indirect responses through August, and talks fell apart by September.
Before the White House could find its way to caving yet again, Iran’s morality police beat to death 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing her hijab to the regime’s liking — a spark that kindled an unprecedented national uprising against the regime. With Hollywood elites flooding social media with support for Iranian women, and with the midterm elections at hand, the White House finally encountered an insurmountable political hurdle to further negotiations.
The midterm elections passed, winter turned to spring, and the Islamic Republic survived the uprising. White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk flew to Oman to pass a message to Iran: America still wanted a nuclear deal.
Confirmation of a secret agreement was first reported publicly on June 7, 2023, by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Iran reportedly agreed to “stop the process of enriching uranium to high levels” in exchange for sanctions relief. The report characterized the release of $20 billion for Iran’s use — from Iraq, South Korea, and the International Monetary Fund — as “the first stage” in this “understanding.”
The United States soon allowed Iran to use $2.76 billion of its funds being held in escrow in Iraq to pay off debts in other parts of the world. An Iranian official estimated the regime’s funds in Iraq at $10 billion — and in July, the Biden administration issued a new sanctions waiver to allow Iran to move that $10 billion out of Iraq and use the money as budget support.
Then came the oil-sanctions relief that let even more revenue be delivered to Iran.
A Reuters headline in June read, “Iran’s oil exports hit 5-year highs as US holds nuclear talks,” while the report said Iran’s crude exports had exceeded 1.5 million barrels per day in May — the highest monthly rate since 2018. The Wall Street Journal reported the following month that Iranian oil exports had reached yet another five-year high, at 1.6 million barrels per day — more than double the level from the previous year.
An August report from Bloomberg revealed what was really going on: “US officials privately acknowledge they’ve gradually relaxed some enforcement of sanctions on Iranian oil sales.” According to Saeed Ghasseminejad of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, that’s another $30 billion in annual revenue for Tehran.
Next, on the anniversary of September 11, the administration allowed $6 billion of oil revenue previously trapped in South Korea to be changed into euros and made available to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. And in the weeks leading up to the October 7 Hamas massacres, Iran was negotiating the release of another $3 billion trapped in Japan.
After the horrific news arrived out of Israel — of a gruesome assault bearing all the hallmarks of Iranian sponsorship and coordination — one might have expected the administration’s Iran policy to change fundamentally. But it didn’t. Eight weeks later — and after more than 70 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since October 17 — Biden’s nuclear deal with Iran continues.
On October 18, 2023, Biden flew to Israel to stand in solidarity with the Jewish state. What most people don’t know is that during the flight, Biden — acting in coordination with European allies — allowed the U.N. missile embargo on Iran to expire. This gift to Iran had been promised under the 2015 nuclear deal — and Biden could have taken it away by writing a letter to the Security Council and restoring all U.N. sanctions on Tehran. He chose to keep the deal alive instead.
Then came the gut punch — the first extension of financial-sanctions relief to Iran after October 7, a waiver allowing Iran to keep accessing the $10 billion from Iraq. A cash reward that will add fuel to the “ring of fire” around Israel. The same president who sent two carrier strike groups to the Middle East as a warning to Tehran is simultaneously lining the ayatollahs’ pockets. Is it any wonder that Hezbollah and the Houthis are still firing missiles while Iran’s militias attack U.S. forces?
Is America getting anything in return for this arrangement? By every indicator — enrichment, centrifuge installation, new underground-facility construction, facilitation of IAEA monitoring and access, and cooperation with an IAEA probe into undeclared nuclear-weapons work — Iran’s nuclear threats continue to increase.
The United States is greenlighting Iran’s buildup of nuclear-weapons capabilities on condition that Iran hold off — for now — on 90 percent enrichment while advancing its buildup of enriched uranium and other nuclear capabilities. We are in effect paying to make the threat larger and more challenging rather than confronting dangerous and illicit conduct. And, of course, we are subsidizing terrorism along the way.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence now believes that Iran is preparing to send ballistic missiles to Russia for use against Ukraine — a direct result of allowing the U.N. missile embargo to expire. And assassination plots against former U.S. officials continue to unfold.
The president simply can’t quit appeasing the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the wake of October 7, it defies logic and common sense — it is bad policy and bad politics.
The mass murder of 1,200 Jews, including 32 Americans, was not enough to break this dangerously flawed strategic paradigm. Perhaps an act of Congress can do so by restricting the president’s sanctions-waiver authority, freezing Iranian funds around the world, and expanding sanctions pressure on China to finally end its importation of Iranian oil.
RICHARD GOLDBERG is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the Illinois governor’s chief of staff, and as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer. @rich_goldberg