Why Biden Will Try to Rejoin the Iran Deal—and Why He Shouldn’t

Iran wants more than cash. What will the regime ask for?

There are two Irans. The first is the real Islamic Republic—a regime that since its birth has sought to export its revolution, achieve regional hegemony, and bend the world to its will. The other is the Iran of imagination. This Iran’s existence rests on a few kernels of truth—the regime is unpopular, no firm decision has been made to develop and deploy nuclear weapons—and another set of assumptions that are little more than fantasy, the projections of naïve policymakers persuaded of their conceits. The Iran fantasists will return to power in Washington, D.C., on January 20. Consider their reasoning.

The return to the deal.
In an interview a little more than a week ago, Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained “President-elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation.” Well, okay. But Iran is now deep in violation of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran deal), including enriching uranium above levels permitted, installing centrifuge cascades, and refusing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Then there’s the fact that the leadership of the Islamic Republic has said they’re not going to adhere to the letter of the JCPOA just like that. Instead, they’ve demanded cash and reparations. Who will stare whom down? 

Real Iran is not coming back into the deal, even for a bunch of cash. Real Iran wants more than that, and as to the question of who has more stamina—Team Biden or Team Ayatollah, the answer should be clear. Some inside the proto-Biden administration believe Iran is upping the ante in order to improve its negotiating position as Biden enters office. That is correct, but it betrays a truth that the Biden folk have yet to admit: There will be negotiations to try to get Iran back to the JCPOA. Negotiations involve give and take … on both sides. What exactly will Biden give? Sanctions relief? Tehran has already pocketed that. What else is there? Cash. Policy changes that accept Iran’s de facto domination of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and perhaps, Iraq? Diplomatic recognition? Those are big gives to get Iran back to the table to discuss returning to what was a lousy deal to begin with.

That “follow on negotiation.”
Here’s Sullivan again: “Our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran’s ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation. We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1.” (The other parties to the JCPOA are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany.) Does Sullivan have any reason to believe that the government of Iran is interested in discussing its ballistic missile program? Far from it. Indeed, the reverse is true.: While the JCPOA covers only nukes, several side agreements ratified by the U.N. Security Council touched on Iran’s acquisition of conventional weapons (that ban expired last October) and missile systems (a toothless resolution calls on, but does not require Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”) There have been repeated violations of even that resolution, which conditionally expires in 2023. Does the incoming national security adviser have any reason to believe Iran would sit down with more parties—think Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others—to chat drawing down its missile program? For real?

Trump empowered Iran’s hardliners.
The notion of “moderates” in Iran’s body politic has been hard to abandon. “Trump’s actions,” we are told, “have now empowered hardliners in Iran, making a diplomatic outcome less likely.” Remember the conceit behind the JCPOA—that the deal would empower regime good guys against baddies and cause them to change their regional behavior? Yeah. What actually happened is  the JCPOA ushered in the most aggressive escalation of Iranian foreign policy in decades: attacks on Saudi oil fields, wanton murder across Syria, doubling down in Yemen, consolidation of domination in Lebanon and more.

What Obama-Biden persophiles and their fellow travelers fail to appreciate is the shell game in which they have been ensnared. Of course, there is a spectrum within even the constrained bandwidth of Iranian regime politics. There are socially liberal and socially conservative members of the regime. There are internationalists of a variety, and isolationists, many from with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. What doesn’t exist are dissenters to the Iranian nuclear weapons program or its regional agenda. This is the purview of the supreme leader, and just as he allowed John Kerry fan club co-chairs Hassan Rouhani (Iran’s outgoing president) and Mohamad Javad Zarif (foreign minister) to do the Iran deal, he has now decided that was a stupid idea.  He is the decider, they are his puppets. Americans cannot manipulate Iranian politics; this is an arrogant, dare-we-say neocolonialist idea. 

Iran is only reacting to threats.
There are three narratives about Iran’s course since the inauguration of Donald Trump. One is that Iran’s “actions are largely driven by the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.” Another is that Iran is being forced to act in response to Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive regional behavior, echoing the Tehran party line. In these cases there are factoids to bolster the claim that Iran is responding to rather than causing regional turmoil: Saudi Arabia did indeed intervene in Yemen; Israel has indeed escalated its cyber attacks against the Islamic Republic. But all these snapshots ignore the third (and true) narrative: Iran’s  undeniable four decade-long campaign to build proxy armies, build unconventional and conventional military arsenals, support terrorism (including the Sunni variety), and otherwise bend the Middle East to its will. The notion that Iran is “lashing out” because of Trump or Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman is laughable.

The disastrous killing of Suleimani (and Fakhrizadeh too!)
On January 3, 2020, an American missile strike took out the infamous leader of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. On November 27, , a bomb (or possibly a remote-controlled machine gun) dispatched Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior IRGC official and key scientist in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Without relitigating the legality of the U.S. strike or the (probably Israeli) Fakhrizadeh operation, it is clear that opinions as to the wisdom of both actions depended entirely on where the viewer sat on the political spectrum. Widely condemned (though always with grudging acknowledgement  of the danger these men presented) by the left, both incoming National Security Adviser Sullivan and former State Department official Bill Burns saw the situation differently: “The collateral damage from the strike on Soleimani will likely be greater than the Trump administration bargained for. Indeed, the strike already appears to be feeding the gnarled ambitions of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by producing a more unified regime with a tighter grip at home.”

First, Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t need help to pursue his “gnarled ambitions”; this is comical. Iran as a whole may be run on authoritarian lines, but the regime itself is totalitarian. The supreme leader, as his title suggests, is indeed supreme. Nor does “this mean war,” as former National Security Adviser Susan Rice insists: “Americans would be wise to brace for war with Iran. Full-scale conflict is not a certainty, but the probability is higher than at any point in decades.” With all due respect to Rice, most scholars of Iran recognize that war is the last thing anyone in the regime wants. Iran pursues its ends through proxies and deniable aggression, not through head-on conflict with the most powerful nation in the world (viz Iran’s weak response to the Suleimani killing, a few missiles at a base in Iraq). War, after all, ends with Iran losing. It may result in a mess of an aftermath (see: Iraq), but it doesn’t conclude with paeans to the lost dictators.

The JCPOA “cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, including a covert pathway.”
At the end of the day, this claim is at the heart of Democratic objections to Trump’s Iran policy, at the heart of Obama’s legacy, and at the heart of the collective Democratic commitment to return to the JCPOA and to upend the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Iran. There’s only one problem: It’s untrue. First, Iran is now enriching uranium to 20 percent with the tools left to it after the JCPOA. That’s most of the way to weapons grade uranium. Second, Iran has been violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the JCPOA by continuing aggressive nuclear research since the deal was signed. And finally, as even the deal’s most ardent admirers must reluctantly admit, the sunset clauses—which remove the JCPOA’s restrictions on nuclear activity—limits on centrifuges are gone in 2025, and on uranium enrichment in 2030—virtually guarantee that Iran will be able to develop a nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it at a time of its choosing.

It will be tempting for the incoming Biden administration to repudiate the Trump legacy on Iran as Trump repudiated Obama’s. The wiser path forward will be to assess Iran as it is, and not as many wish it was. The real Iran must be contained, its nuclear weapons program ended, its missile program curtailed, its war on its neighbors finished. It is a tall order, but the national security of the United States and its allies demands realism on the part of our new commander in chief.