Over the next few weeks, President Joe Biden will face the biggest decision of his presidency regarding Iran. He can finally take “no” for an answer and build a coalition to hold Tehran accountable for its nuclear deceit and misconduct. Or, he can fall into the mullahs’ trap and close the door on achieving his goal of a longer and stronger nuclear agreement in the future.
For months now, the Biden administration has been operating under a mistaken assumption. The administration believed that if the United States eased the political and economic pressure on Iran while abjuring any credible threat of military force, Tehran would potentially negotiate a replacement to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the President Trump withdrew in 2018. In fact, the opposite has proven true.
Iran entered this year with just $4 billion in accessible foreign exchange reserves, a U.S. president who demonstrated a willingness to use force against Iran, and the possibility that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors might refer the regime to the U.N. Security Council for breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Tellingly, Iran began producing highly enriched uranium in early January only because the regime was confident the Trump administration—days from leaving office—no longer had the political ability to respond militarily. Had the economic and political pressure of 2020 intensified in 2021, the United States would likely already be in negotiations with Iran over a new nuclear agreement.
But on January 20, 2021, the mullahs got a new lease on life as the Trump campaign of maximum pressure shifted to a Biden campaign of maximum deference. Rather than continue to starve the regime of cash, Biden allowed Iran to use its frozen reserves to repay foreign debts while pulling back European allies from censuring Iran over its continued refusal to cooperate with an IAEA investigation into undeclared nuclear sites and materials. At the same time, Iran tested Biden through its regional proxies with sustained attacks on American troops in Iraq, rocket and missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, and attacks on maritime shipping. Yet Biden did not retaliate as his predecessor did by targeting the personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which directed these attacks—even after the death of a U.S. contractor.