When Joe Biden came into office in January 2021, he signaled a sea change in American policy toward Iran, including pushing to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed under President Barack Obama.
That deal, lauded by Democrats as preventing Iran from achieving its nuclear aims, would have, in reality, made the Iranian nuclear threat worse. Returning to the deal abrogated by President Donald Trump would reward Iran for its malign regional actions and its ignoring of JCPOA limits in the first place. Still, for the first year and a half of his term, Biden and his foreign policy team sought to lure the Iranians back to the negotiating table.
Biden said in February 2021 that his administration was “prepared to reengage in negotiations” with Iran. That April, he briefly scolded the Iranians for increasing uranium enrichment levels before totally undermining that sentiment, stating, “We are, though, nonetheless pleased that Iran has continued to agree to engage in discussions, indirect discussions with us and with our partners on how we move forward and what is needed to allow us to move back into the [JCPOA], and so that we are a part of it again.” Even through last July, Biden sought a return to the nuclear deal, but his tune changed drastically thereafter.
In the lead-up to the 2022 midterm election, the administration castigated Iran for its brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, applied sanctions to Iranian entities for supplying Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, and privately declared that the Iran nuclear deal was “dead.” Although this response was unrelated to the continuing Iranian support for regional terrorism or its rapidly expanding nuclear program, it was a welcome change from the previous policy of naïve optimism. Publicly supporting the courageous dissidents against the Iranian theocracy was morally righteous, while opposing Iranian material aid to Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine was strategically useful.
Unfortunately, this rhetorical turn was short-lived, if it was ever meant at all.
A month after the election, a return to the status quo with respect to Iran was already in the making. Trial balloons were floated over a renewal of diplomacy, even if the JCPOA itself was dead in the water. Biden administration officials anonymously stated that indirect talks still continued via European middlemen and that other diplomatic efforts may be launched. This conciliatory approach has continued, despite the fact that Iran has enriched uranium to near weapons-grade status. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Americans and Europeans were at loggerheads over censuring Iran for this breach, with the Europeans, shockingly, being more aggressive than the U.S.
Iran-Saudi Deal Is Bad for the U.S.
This passivity toward American security interests in the Middle East — a policy that favors Iran — was reinforced by the recent diplomatic agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That rapprochement, brokered by China, dealt a huge blow to U.S. interests in the region. Iran gained the benefit of direct de-escalation with the Saudis without being forced to cease support for terrorist proxies that attack Saudi Arabia from elsewhere. China gets to reap the rewards of its mediation, securing access to key infrastructure in both countries and reducing American predominance in the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, the Saudis were forced into this imperfect deal by circumstances largely of the Biden administration’s making. Its constant attacks on Saudi leadership, refusal of military support against Iranian proxies in Yemen, and disengagement from the region all led the kingdom to believe the U.S. is not a solid ally and that it needed to make security arrangements elsewhere.
Did the Biden administration correctly see this deal as bad for American interests, both in its strengthening of Iran and with respect to the China connection? Of course not. Instead, administration officials praised this diplomatic coup by the Iranians and Chinese.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the administration had “encouraged” and “supported” the deal, claiming it could “de-escalate tensions in the region and potentially help to prevent conflict” if the Iranians follow through on their commitments. As we have seen with the nuclear issue, relying on Iranian promises is a fool’s errand. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called the Iran-Saudi deal “a good thing” and absurdly saw it as China and the U.S. “rowing in the same direction.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these sentiments as well. This willingness to abandon long-held American positions on regional security only helps our rivals who are working in concert to undermine the world order.
Major Recent U.S. Concession
Just last week, we saw another even more worrying example of this policy failure in action. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in front of Congress and stated that “The United States remains committed as a matter of policy that Iran will not have a fielded nuclear weapon.” This may sound anodyne, but it is anything but.
The critical part of the sentence is the term “fielded nuclear weapon,” which signals a major policy shift and is a significant concession to Iran. Official American nuclear policy is one of non-proliferation beyond a small handful of acknowledged nuclear weapons states — the five signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China). Four other states have nuclear weapons outside of the agreement — Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. In line with our long-held policy on non-proliferation and our national interests, we have strongly opposed Iran’s quest to be the fifth of those unofficial nuclear weapons states.
The past three presidents have all taken this stance. President George W. Bush warned in 2007 that a nuclear-armed Iran would “pose a dangerous threat to world peace” tantamount to “World War III.” President Obama said outright that “Iran will never be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon,” even though his flawed JCPOA would have eventually paved the path to that end. President Donald Trump dismissed his predecessor’s Iran deal but kept the rhetoric, stating in 2020, “Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.” Even President Biden joined the chorus, saying in a September 2022 address to the United Nations that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” These are consistent statements of resolve, despite the fact that the Iran policies of these four administrations differed wildly. And that is what makes Milley’s remark so concerning.
By focusing on the idea that Iran will not be allowed a “fielded nuclear weapon,” Milley opens the door to Iran enriching uranium to weapons-grade, constructing a nuclear warhead, and mounting it on a ballistic missile — as long as they keep it in its silo. This is not only an abrogation of decades of American policy, it directly endangers our national security and that of our allies.
By softening our opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we force our Middle Eastern partners to make a choice: allow Iran regional primacy in exchange for an uneasy ceasefire, or gear up for direct confrontation to destroy Iran’s nuclear program and limit its regional aims. The Saudis seem to be taking the first option, but the Israelis would very likely take the second. The regional war that would result from such kinetic action could spark a wider conflict, endangering American lives at home and abroad.
In the case of Iran, a posture of strength and steadiness forms the backbone of deterrence. Diluting our opposition to Iranian nuclear weapons would be disastrous for American interests and national security. The Biden team may have talked a big game before the midterms but has fallen flat ever since. In a time of increasing insecurity and instability across the world, driven by nations that wish to overthrow the U.S.-led world system, the president and his staff seem hopelessly outmatched. Its Iran policy is exemplary of that failure to understand the stakes.
One can only hope that the next president overturns this failed approach and returns to a policy of peace through strength.
Mike Coté is a writer and podcaster focusing on history, Great Power rivalry, and geopolitics. He has also written for National Review and The National Interest, blogs at rationalpolicy.com, and can be found on Twitter @ratlpolicy.
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