December 18, 2023 | The Messenger

Biden Should Get Tough on Tehran to Better Stand with Israel Against Hamas

December 18, 2023 | The Messenger

Biden Should Get Tough on Tehran to Better Stand with Israel Against Hamas

The Biden administration’s Middle East policy exhibits a troublesome contradiction impeding both its credibility and effectiveness. Despite its continuing support for Israel, more than two months since Hamas’s terror attack killing 1,400 civilians on Oct. 7, the Biden administration has yet to alter meaningfully its policy towards Hamas’s greatest state patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This dissonance is an own goal that circumscribes the impact of U.S. assistance to Israel and hinders building a more coherent regional policy.

Fortunately, it is correctable.

Deference towards Tehran — evident in lapsing UN ballistic missile prohibitions, a reluctance to hold Iran accountable at international fora like the IAEA for its escalating nuclear program, the failure to enforce oil sanctions, the issuance of financial waivers, just to name a few examples — will not and has not begotten reciprocal restraint. In addition to Iranian officials more vocally backing their proxy in Gaza, which harbors the same intentions toward the Jewish State as the Islamic Republic does, they are also bragging about the extent of their pre-Oct. 7 material support to Hamas.

Furthermore, Iran is matching its words with deeds through reported cyber-attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure. In the region, Tehran has activated its proxy network dubbed “the Axis of Resistance” to turn up the temperature on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in the hopes prospects of a widening war will force Washington to shut down Israel’s war against Hamas. Another member of the Axis, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, continue to use Iranian-supplied or inspired weaponry against Israel as well as against international shipping in the Red Sea.

To rectify this situation, the Biden administration can and should embark on a multi-pronged policy against Tehran that resets the chessboard against the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. In the aggregate, these moves can signal a renewed seriousness in Washington that connects the dots between patron and proxy.

First, in addition to the diplomatic backing the administration is providing Israel, Washington should be laying the political groundwork to better expose the evolving nature of Iran’s backing of Hamas, be it via weapons trafficking or support for local production. A better public understanding fostered through captured Hamas weaponry can tell this tale and maintain support for Israel’s military campaign.

Second, Iran’s overseas financial resources must be frozen. The collective $16 billion held in Qatar and Oman, part of which was reportedly linked to the release of U.S. hostages and potential moves toward some form of nuclear understanding, remains a contentious issue. Despite claims from Washington that these funds are frozen, there remains ambiguity and denial from both Doha and Tehran about the status of these revenues. Ensuring these funds and others remain inaccessible to Iran is crucial for limiting its regional influence and ability to back proxy groups.

Next, the U.S. should revoke the energy waivers that have been granted and renewed to Iraq for importing electricity from Iran. These waivers constitute both been a significant source of revenue for Tehran as well as leverage by Baghdad over Washington to avoid having to wean itself off of Iranian energy. The latest waiver’s terms, which have been reportedly broadened, are a step in the wrong direction.

In addition to these measures, the U.S. should rigorously enforce existing sanctions on Iran’s oil trade, calls for which already exist in the House and Senate. The estimated monetary value of these unenforced sanctions to Iran and commensurate surge in oil exports since Biden entered office is in the neighborhood of $95 billion.

Beyond sanctioning the middlemen and front companies across the Middle East and South East Asia that help Iran illicitly export oil, Washington should be stepping up pressure on entities in China, the ultimate “end user” of this oil. This includes penalties against tankers and ports that transfer the oil and the banks and financial intermediaries that facilitate these transactions. Sanctioning those who even store Iranian oil should be considered.

As a corollary, existing sanctions on goods like petrochemicals, among Iran’s most valuable exports after oil and gas, should be enforced. The same logic applies to industrial metals like steel, which have seen a rise in exports over the past year. Rigorous sanctions enforcement here can further cast a dark shadow over the Islamic Republic’s economic outlook and diminish its ability to generate revenues that underwrite its terrorist apparatus as well as nuclear, missile, and other military programs.

Elsewhere, the U.S. should adopt a more kinetic approach towards Iran-backed militias in the region who use force against U.S. facilitiesinternational shipping, and Israel. By responding to the point of origin for these attacks when fired upon, as well as developing political and legal rationales to strike the various bases and depots filled with Iran-provided munitions in-between periods of fighting, the U.S. can both signal resolve and erode the warfighting capabilities of Iran’s proxies. As a reminder,  U.S. positions in Syria and Iraq have been struck over 75 times in the past two months by these militias. These groups are still undeterred, especially in the face of the limited U.S. kinetic pushback against them thus far.

The added value of an improved response-ratio to Iran-backed militia attacks is the message that U.S. military hardware and assets in the region are not there only to engage in deterrence by denial, but also deterrence by punishment. Such a message, if sustained over time, could serve as an asset in future U.S. efforts to use coercive diplomacy to constrain or rollback Iran’s nuclear program.

Finally, the U.S. should actively support anti-regime movements within Iran. The Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel followed the one-year anniversary of nationwide anti-regime protests that at their peak touched over 150 different cities, towns, and villages. Such sentiment has not dissipated, nor has the regime’s treatment of dissenters and rights defenders. Iranian authorities are also using the global focus on Gaza to step up executions at home, with over 120 reported executions in the past two months.

But beyond the moral implications of standing with the Iranian people are the strategic dividends. Since at least 2009, but in every major iteration of anti-regime protests since (and particularly amid protests in 2017-2020), Iranians have bravely chided their government for embarking on transnational Jihadist projects at the expense of the national interest and public good. This was and remains most acutely seen in the protest slogan, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.” Imagine a government in Tehran representative of these views rather than one which has worked to erect and sustain a ring of fire around Israel that we are witnessing today.

Standing with protesting Iranians means more designations that name, shame, and punish Iran’s political, security, and judicial apparatus for supporting the regime’s repression. But active measures can also include helping Iranian netizens maintain access to the uncensored internet as well as helping laborers establish a strike fund using seized oil revenues in a manner not dissimilar to the support provided to the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Options remain galore, but a reorientation of U.S. Middle East policy is imperative. The current approach, characterized by its contradictory nature not only undermines U.S. interests but by offering the Islamic Republic a more permissive financial and geopolitical environment, poses significant risks to regional stability and security. October 7 should have been ample proof of the results of such a policy.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD) in Washington, D.C., where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow.


Cyber Energy Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Sanctions Israel Military and Political Power Sanctions and Illicit Finance U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy