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Hostages and a Nuclear Illusion
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Hostages and a Nuclear Illusion

Biden’s appeasement actually increases the chance that Iran will build a bomb.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei leads the Eid al-Fitr prayer at Grand Mosalla Mosque of Tehran on April 22, 2023. (Photo by Iranian Leader Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It’s now official: The Biden administration has concluded a hostage-exchange deal with Iran in which the U.S. will get back five Americans and Iran will receive five Iranian or Iranian-American citizens held in the U.S.—assuming all these detainees want to leave jail for the Islamic Republic. Most crucially, the clerical regime also gets access to $6 billion in hard currency held in South Korean banks, which will be transferred to Qatar. Washington says the unfrozen funds can be used only for humanitarian purposes; Tehran says the cash will be unrestricted. If Qatar—which isn’t known for being a rigorous fiduciary—is overseeing Iran’s use of this sanctions relief, Tehran’s take on the transactions will surely be closer to the truth. And Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made clear in a recent NBC News interview that the Islamic Republic views the unfrozen funds as illegally seized and may be allocated as the government sees fit.   

Although the Iranian theocracy has repeatedly used hostage-taking against the United States (the embassy takedown after the revolution and Iran-Contra have so far been the most politically consequential), this may be the first time American aspirations have little to do with what was actually traded. Even for those who don’t see hostage-taking as addictive, $1.2 billion per hostage is a lot of money. The White House clearly hopes that this deal is a prelude to a new nuclear “understanding” in which the clerical regime would voluntarily restrict uranium enrichment to something less than bomb-grade in exchange for more sanctions relief.   

Unfortunately for President Biden, the Iranian theocracy separates kidnapping and ransom from the nuclear issue.  

The White House has stubbornly persisted in its diplomatic outreach to the Islamic Republic even after it became clear that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has no interest in reviving Barack Obama’s nuclear accord. A sensible question lies behind the administration’s diplomacy: Why hasn’t the clerical regime already gone nuclear? It’s a hopeful question based on the undeniable fact that Iran is a nuclear threshold state. It has a sizable stockpile of highly enriched uranium, functioning advanced centrifuges in underground sites, and engineers who’ve probably mastered an atomic trigger.  

To confront or provoke Iran now could lead it to quickly construct an atomic device. Maintaining the status quo, where Washington doesn’t try to choke off Tehran’s sanctions evasion in Asia or loudly threaten military action, is for the White House a success. The regional and global effect of the mullahs getting the bomb would probably be much larger than when North Korea successfully defied Washington in 2006. Better to pay off the clerical regime than publicly accept Iran’s nuclearization—especially before U.S. elections in 2024.

Given the administration’s mindset and its ardent aversion to another Middle Eastern war, Biden likely doesn’t see that his actions increase the odds of an Iranian nuke, and sooner rather than later. The two most likely nontechnical reasons why the Islamic Republic hasn’t yet tested an atomic weapon—fear of American power and a constant concern about internal Iranian leaks from within its nuclear program, which could provoke a U.S. strike—are undermined by any new “understanding.”  

Any agreement that leaves Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent and above (which can quickly be enhanced with ever-improving cascades of advanced centrifuges) and releases billions in hard currency for this “concession,” reveals an America without red lines. Is Khamenei less or more scared of American resolve after goosing us for $6 billion? The supreme leader, who lives to humiliate the United States, hasn’t stopped the indirect talks with Washington for a reason.  

No U.S. administration, not even a sincerely progressive one, wants to see itself as weak. Americans are adept at recasting globe-rattling defeats into a positive reordering of priorities. When avoiding military conflict is the ultimate objective, appeasement takes on its own unrelenting logic.

And the White House has already effectively decoupled nonproliferation from the use of force. Getting extorted, either over hostages or an A-bomb, is better than war. The administration (correctly) has little faith in sanctions as an anti-nuclear deterrent. And sober minds in the foreign-policy establishment don’t envision domestic discontent overwhelming the Islamist regime.The U.S. intelligence community, whose proclamations Khamenei at times brandishes, insists that the regime is durable. 

So the administration needs more transactions with Tehran to keep appeasement a viable option (appeasement has often been used by small states against stronger ones; it may be uniquely American that this equation has now been reversed). Moderate Democrats may well keep their distance from the administration’s entreaties. With Obama’s nuclear deal, which transferred billions to Tehran when the Islamic Republic was abetting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunni Muslims, most Democrats could turn their eyes toward nonproliferation and blame the Russians for the bloodletting.This is harder to do today, when the Russian-Iranian alliance is far stronger and Iranian drones are killing Ukrainian Christians. The Islamic Republic is in a proxy war against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the one alliance that makes Democratic hearts go pitter-patter.  

Releasing funds for “humanitarian purposes” may not provide much cover.  The theocracy, which poisoned young girls across Iran to get their parents to keep them away from street protests, isn’t acutely tuned to the commonweal. With Obama’s accord, some administration officials sincerely believed that they could reform the Islamic Republic through engagement. Do Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan really think this today? Does Biden think he can keep Khamenei, who has driven the nuclear program forward at enormous cost since the early 1990s, content with cash? Odds are good the president is just making this up as he goes along, hoping that the cleric prefers extortion to a nuclear test, at least before November 2024.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.