Goodbye To All That
Biden may usher in a new era in which we won’t really have an Iran policy at all.
The Biden administration entered office determined to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear deal—that the Obama administration agreed to in 2015 and that Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Despite six rounds of failed talks in Vienna, and despite Iran continuing to advance its nuclear programs, the administration is still sending signals saying, “Pretty, pretty please, let’s talk.”
There is now no doubt that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his mini-me president, Ebrahim Raisi, don’t intend to accept an accord that could plausibly be described as a follow-on to the JCPOA. In recent months, the Islamic Republic has upped its uranium enrichment levels to 60 percent (ideal bomb purity is 90 percent), come closer to perfecting high-yield enrichment machines, and called the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) “unprofessional.” Reports indicate that Iran could be within one month of having enough weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear bomb.
If the White House gets a new deal—and one must admire Khamenei for the way he has methodically ratcheted up pressure on the United States, via uranium enrichment and Shiite militia attacks in Iraq—it will amount to an American surrender with, at best, an Iranian promissory note for further talks after Joe Biden has eliminated the sanctions that matter. Advanced centrifuge development will surely continue, as will all the sunset clauses of the JCPOA, which allow in a few years for an easily weaponized, industrial-scale nuclear infrastructure.
The White House deserves some praise: The president has so far held out from making the concessions that Khamenei has demanded, which likely are even more extensive than those offered by Obama. The White House has only three options: unleash the U.S. Air Force and Navy, publicly concede to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions (and either keep sanctions or fold), or make a deal that temporarily reduces Iran’s uranium stockpile and little else and call it victory. Since there is likely no domestic political penalty, certainly not within the Democratic Party, with option three, Biden will try to snatch it—provided Khamenei hasn’t decided to just tell America to stuff it. (Always a possibility with the cleric.)
The American pattern with the Islamic Republic, with just a few memorable exceptions (the assassination of the Revolutionary Guard overlord Qassem Suleimani in 2020, the Baghdad raids in 2006, and Operation Praying Mantis in 1988), has been a game of chicken where Washington blinks first. In that vein, Biden could have started in January 2021, with all of the concessions that he will likely soon make. Iranian hubris—Khamenei’s raison d’être revolves around sticking it to the United States—may have stopped him. And perhaps also a general understanding—Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have both essentially conceded the point—that the JCPOA wasn’t a splendid arrangement.
Now the president may usher in a new era in which we actually won’t have an Iran policy, even under a future Republican administration. The Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department will continue, of course, to churn out paper on the Islamic Republic. The National Security Council will have its meetings. We might get an official Washington task force assembled to discuss “Whither the U.S. versus Iran.” When the Republicans take back the White House and Congress, we could see serious sanctions again thrown at the theocracy. But probably not much more.
If the Israelis haven’t struck the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites by 2025, when the regime will have advanced centrifuges already in production, then Jerusalem will have clearly signaled that preventive military actions are just too much for it to handle. Mossad may still be blowing things up and assassinating key Iranian scientific personnel when it can, but such actions will probably only serve to retard a bit Tehran’s schedule.
If the Israelis “accept” the Iranian bomb, we can be certain that what’s left of the hawkish wing of the Republican Party will, too. By 2025 Iranian hegemony in much of the Middle East will be set—unless internal Iranian unrest, or Israel, upsets the theocracy’s ambitions. The “realist,” hands-off mindset on the Republican side cohabits well with the abundant conservative sentiments that see the region as just too perverse and intractable. Democrats and Republicans may not, when all the rhetoric clears, differ all that much in how they act toward the Islamic Republic.
Barring some stunning act of Iranian stupidity (and it would have to be a big terrorist strike that Tehran can’t hide), the United States henceforth may not even pretend to have the means and will to change the clerical regime’s behavior. We will be like France, which has an ardent anti-proliferation mentality and a deep suspicion of the clerical regime but is ineluctably inclined toward appeasement.
We are surely at the moment when Washington de facto accepts the Islamic Republic’s nuclearization; we have already accepted its dominance of the northern Middle East. The southern Middle East will take more time since oil is still too important to allow the Sunni Gulf Arabs the fiction that they can protect it—despite their massive purchases of American and European arms. But what you are unwilling to fight for you can’t protect, and Donald Trump wrote our future in 2019 when he declined to respond militarily to the Iranian missile attack on the oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia. Imagining Biden, who is more determined than Trump was to downsize America in the Middle East, going bold against the Islamic Republic beggars belief.
In other words, by 2025, it’s game, set, and match. For the United States, without Israeli intervention and the possibly productive regional disturbance and uncertainties it would bring, we have likely already lost. As part of a new executive agreement with the Biden administration, Tehran may ship out part of its growing stockpile of enriched uranium. But with new-and-improved machines, that doesn’t really matter. With the Islamic Republic’s current batch of fairly primitive centrifuges, the ones the JCPOA failed to destroy, the clerical regime can obviously increase its enrichment capacity and purity pretty quickly. With better machines, it will be nearly impossible, at least for the CIA and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to detect cascades if Tehran decides to deploy them clandestinely. Their electricity usage and space requirements will be too small to pick up through technical collection. Human intelligence would be required; given its track record in Iran, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations would likely need divine intervention.
After a new deal is done, the administration and much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment will undoubtedly pretend that America is still a player in the Middle East, that the United States didn’t go belly up and retains options. The reflexes of American hegemony die hard, even in those who are averse to the use of American power. The president and his senior foreign-policy aides appear to be in this camp. But Jerusalem and Tehran will know better. The U.S. rout in Afghanistan is a just forerunner of what will happen when the rest of the Middle East realizes—Arab political elites are more stubborn in their conspiracies about American omnipotence than Cold War Americans are in their hegemonic habits—that our writ is gone.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.