Biden must abandon his quest for a nuclear deal
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about: This week Iran escalated its war against the West.
On June 8 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution calling on Iran to explain traces of uranium that it found at three undisclosed sites of nuclear activity. Hours before the IAEA vote, Iran disconnected security cameras from one of its declared nuclear sites. Then Iran began taking down IAEA cameras throughout its territory. The world’s nuclear watchdog is flying blind. “When we lose this,” IAEA director Rafael Mariano Grossi told reporters, “then it’s anybody’s guess” what Iran is doing.
But we know what Iran is doing. Iran is playing hardball. For over a year now, the Biden administration and its European partners have attempted to lure Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal, a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Those negotiations have failed. Iran keeps upping the ante. It wants Biden to drop sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its terrorist army, and to guarantee that future presidents won’t back out of the deal. The first demand is harmful to national security and a political hot potato. The second is impossible. Result: deadlock.
Deadlock that favors Iran. The mullahs have used the months of jaw-jaw to prepare for war-war. Ayatollah Khamenei has placed radicals in top positions, including the presidency. His proxy forces have spread violence in Iraq, Yemen, and throughout the Greater Middle East. He has plotted to assassinate U.S. officials. He has evaded sanctions. And he has built up his stockpile of nuclear fuel.
Iran has enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Last week, David Albright and Sarah Burkhard of the Institute for Science and International Security (the good ISIS) wrote that “Iran’s breakout timeline is now at zero.”
Swell. How does President Biden respond? He says there is still time to make a deal that even his lead negotiator, State Department official Robert Malley, admits is “tenuous at best.”
The complacency is maddening. The other day, when a reporter asked National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for his thoughts on Iran’s dispute with the IAEA, Sullivan said, “From our perspective, we have to view these on separate tracks, and that’s how we’re going to proceed.” Translation: We won’t let Iran’s hostile behavior get in the way of appeasement.
On June 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Iran’s moves against the IAEA are “counterproductive and further complicate our efforts to return to full implementation of the JCPOA.” Also, the sky is blue. What’s Blinken going to do about it? “We continue to press Iran to choose diplomacy and de-escalation instead,” he said.
This is willful blindness. Iran made its choice. It rejected diplomacy and de-escalation. It opted for confrontation and resistance.
Yet America is too preoccupied, too distracted, too overwhelmed to act accordingly. Inflation, crime, the border, guns, abortion, and Ukraine command the public’s attention. The growing danger from Iran does not. Meanwhile, the secretary of defense is a background player. The secretary of state and the national security adviser are staffers, not independent leaders. The president is 79 years old and not good at his job. This moment demands confidence, willfulness, boldness, imagination, and risk. What we get are odd ramblings from Biden on Kimmel.
Things must change. Iran policy is a good—and urgent—place to start. Step one is to face reality. Close the open hand that the ayatollah has spat upon. Demand enactment of snap-back sanctions. Adopt the bipartisan Senate bill that would integrate air and missile defenses in the Greater Middle East. Call for a massive defense buildup. Ease restrictions, limits, and delays on lend-lease to Ukraine, then take the same approach to arming Israel and our Gulf partners (as well as Taiwan). Recognize the importance of the Abraham Accords as the foundation for regional stability. And revive the military option to demonstrate our seriousness.
The drift toward global disorder began after former president Obama decided not to enforce his red line against chemical weapons in Syria. That was almost a decade ago. One way to repair the jagged breach in American credibility and American deterrence would be to make good on our longstanding promise that Iran won’t obtain the world’s most terrible weapon.
The current path leads to a world where America is ignored, where Israel’s existence is threatened, and where the risk of nuclear war is greater than it is even today. We’ve been telling ourselves for a while that such a world would be unacceptable. Let’s act like it.
Iran won’t back down from its assassination campaign targeting former U.S. officials over the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, a top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander said.
IRGC navy commander Alireza Tangsiri said that Iran would not accept a deal whereby the U.S. would lift terrorism sanctions in exchange for Iranian pledges to “give up on avenging Soleimani,” Reuters reported yesterday. Tangsiri, Reuters added, seemed to be speaking specifically about Iran’s demand that the U.S. remove the IRGC from its Foreign Terrorist Organization list, which bans members of the group from entering the U.S.
“This is pure fantasy. The Supreme Leader has emphasized the need for revenge and the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander has said that revenge is inevitable and that we will choose the time and place for it,” Tangsiri said.
When Iranian officials talk about avenging Soleimani’s death, they are understood to be referring to their efforts to kill Trump administration officials who planned the Soleimani operation.
Tangsiri’s comments are an indication that Tehran continues to take a hard line on its demands that the Biden administration lift the FTO designation — which has brought the talks in Geneva to a standstill.
They also demonstrate that Iran has no intention of backing down from its ongoing assassination plots, even if the Biden administration were to lift the FTO designation and return to the deal.
The Iranian government has made a number of threats targeting former U.S. officials over the Soleimani killing.
To mark the two-year anniversary of the strike in January, Iran placed 52 U.S. officials it said were involved in the Soleimani strike on a sanctions blacklist believed to double as a list of people to target for assassination. In another memorable instance that month, the country’s supreme leader even shared a video depicting Trump’s assassination on the Mar-a-Lago golf course.
Meanwhile, a number of former senior U.S. officials, including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, have reportedly been assigned security details beyond their government service. The intelligence community believes that Iranian agents are working to assassinate the two officials on U.S. soil, the Washington Examiner’s Tom Rogan reported last month.
The Biden administration’s response to these Iranian assassination threats, besides the protective details, has largely been symbolic.
Although national-security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement in January pledging to inflict “severe consequences” on Iran in response to any assassinations, the U.S. has not withdrawn from the nuclear negotiations in Vienna over the ongoing threats to former officials. Instead, the administration has continued to participate in the talks, despite Iran’s demands to remove the IRGC from the FTO list.
In fact, there’s reason to believe that the administration is holding back from taking steps that would name and shame Iranians involved in these assassination plots for fear of disrupting the nuclear talks.
Rogan reported that the Department of Justice possesses indictable evidence against at least two IRGC members who are working to recruit a U.S.-based assassin to kill Bolton. (While Rogan noted that the department may have opted for a sealed indictment, he called the possibility unlikely.)
Those efforts haven’t prompted the White House to scrap the nuclear talks, and neither have Tangsiri’s recent comments.
Even as a top Iranian commander doubled down on his country’s assassination threats, the Biden administration has opted for continued engagement toward an agreement that would undeniably empower the IRGC.
Senior Biden administration officials pledged in sworn testimony to Congress they would robustly enforce sanctions on Iran. More than one year after these promises, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) says there is mounting evidence the officials lied to Congress.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to China, and Ramin Toloui, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, were both pressed during their Senate confirmation hearings late last year on Iran sanctions enforcement. In sworn written testimony to Cruz, copies of which were obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, Burns and Toloui vowed to uphold sanctions on Iran’s illicit oil trade and pressure China on the matter.
Since their confirmation last year, however, Iranian oil sales to China and other countries have skyrocketed, jumping 40 percent and sparking accusations that the Biden administration is turning a blind eye to sanctions enforcement as it works to ink a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal. With Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly united in opposition to a new deal, the promises by Burns and Toloui are under renewed scrutiny. Cruz and his colleagues suspect these officials never intended to uphold sanctions and misled Congress in order to win their confirmation.
“The new agreement President Biden hopes to finalize with the Ayatollah would open up vast new weapons markets to Putin and more energy for Xi’s expansion, all while injecting billions of dollars for terrorism around the Middle East and beyond,” Cruz told the Washington Free Beacon. “President Biden and Biden-Harris officials are feverishly appeasing Russia, China, and Iran—and those countries are then allying together to collectively undermine American interests.”
One senior congressional Republican aide, speaking only on background about the matter, said, “It’s increasingly clear that Biden officials will say and do anything to get confirmed, but then they all implement Biden’s fringe anti-American, pro-China, pro-Iran agenda. No wonder the administration has zero credibility with Congress or anyone else.”
Burns, who was confirmed by the Senate in mid-December, positioned himself as a sanctions enforcer who would pressure China to wind down its purchases of Iranian oil.
“China has long been importing Iranian oil, and the administration will continue to oppose Iranian sanctions evasion efforts, including those involving Chinese entities,” Burns wrote to Cruz on Oct. 20 in sworn testimony. “The administration will continue to raise this issue directly with the Chinese as part of its dialogue on Iran policy and I agree that, in general, this is a more effective path forward to address our concerns.”
“If confirmed,” Burns said, “I will engage vigorously with China to discourage them from taking steps vis-a-vis Iran that threaten our interests.”
Toloui offered similar assurances.
“I expect the administration to continue to oppose Iranian sanctions evasion efforts, including those involving Chinese entities. If confirmed, I will work with others in the administration to raise this issue with the Chinese as part of a dialogue on Iran policy,” Toloui told Cruz on Oct. 26, prior to his confirmation in mid-December.
Evidence indicates these promises were not upheld.
From 2020 to 2021, Iranian oil exports increased by 123 million barrels, or 40 percent, according to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which closely tracks Tehran’s armada of illegal oil tankers. China was by far the top importer and continues to purchase illicit Iranian crude.
In January, after both officials were confirmed, China announced for the first time in more than two years that it is violating U.S. sanctions by importing Iranian oil.
“Up until now, the U.S. has been notably reluctant to enforce its own oil sanctions against China, but the administration has also had an excuse not to act because ‘officially’ Beijing was not importing,” UANI officials wrote at the time. “In plainly declaring its willingness to violate the most critical aspect of the U.S. sanctions architecture, China is probing President Biden’s seriousness and testing American commitment to enforcing its own oil sanctions.”
The Biden administration has made clear that all sanctions on Iran’s oil sector will be removed as part of a new nuclear agreement, which is likely to emerge in the coming weeks.
In October, a few weeks after Lebanon’s politicians had formed a new government, the Biden administration sent Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland to Lebanon to showcase U.S. support for the new Hezbollah-led government. In Beirut, Nuland announced $67 million in additional funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces, and briefed Lebanese leaders on other administration initiatives to bolster the Lebanese system.
That this was a government formed by Hezbollah and its allies was of little consequence to the administration’s decision. In fact, the United States, along with France, the two western countries most directly involved in Lebanese affairs, have made clear their policy rests on investing in and stabilizing the Hezbollah-controlled status quo.
The Lebanese government formation process began a year earlier, when, following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, French president Emmanuel Macron presented his initiative to the Lebanese. Macron was straightforward about who he considered his principal interlocutor in Beirut. During his visit to Lebanon, Macron met with Hezbollah officials, and, according to a French press report, he offered to partner with them in Lebanon. “I want to work with you to change Lebanon,” he proposed to a Hezbollah member of parliament.
Macron wasn’t subtle about his aims. When he returned to Beirut in September 2020, he was accompanied by the chairman and chief executive officer of the French container shipping giant CMA CGM Group, which is vying, among other things, to operate the container terminal at the Beirut port. Earlier this year it acquired the license to operate the container terminal at the port of Tripoli. The ministry that overseas Lebanon’s ports, Public Works and Transportation, is held, not coincidentally, by Hezbollah. In November, the Hezbollah minister Ali Hamieh, who holds French citizenship — also arguably no coincidence — launched an international tender for the management, maintenance and operation of the Beirut port container terminal. France reportedly also has expressed interest in the electric sector and public transportation.
With an eye on European leadership, France has been making a power play in the eastern Mediterranean, deploying frigates and participating in naval exercises in support of Greece — with whom it signed a defense pact — and in opposition to Turkey. Lebanon is tangential to this play, but the country hosts relevant French holdings. In 2018, a consortium led by French energy giant Total signed an agreement with Lebanon to explore for oil and gas in two of its ten offshore blocks. While the exploration in one of the blocks turned up dry, drilling in the second block in the waters off of south Lebanon, near the border with Israel, is yet to begin. On this end, Paris is getting an assist from a parallel American initiative.
The Biden administration is pushing to revive stalled maritime border demarcation talks between Israel and Lebanon. The talks were set in motion in the final months of the Trump administration, with the misguided belief that Lebanon’s economic duress, and the promise of revenue from potential offshore gas, would quickly lead to a deal. Predictably, the talks came to a halt as the Lebanese expanded their demands by several hundred kilometers to lay claim to Israeli fields and territorial waters. The Biden administration’s point man for the initiative, Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein, who also visited Beirut in October, has made telling comments about the assumptions underpinning the policy.
As was the case with the State Department under the previous administration, the basic premise behind the US mediation effort continues to be entirely about finding ways to inject funds into the Lebanese system. In an interview, Hochstein pitched the Biden administration’s fantastical vision to the Lebanese: reach a speedy agreement and by 2025, Lebanon would be “joining the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in selling gas into the global market, and you become a global exporter of a product.”
The fact that the Lebanese government, indeed the entire political order, is run by Hezbollah, does not temper the administration’s vision. At one point, Hochstein’s interviewer had to interject with a reminder that Hezbollah is under US sanctions. Seemingly caught off guard, Hochstein replied that he saw “Lebanon as a country,” and didn’t “think of Hezbollah as Lebanon.” That is, whereas the French have done away with all pretense, reaching out directly to Hezbollah to secure their interests, the US continues to pretend that Hezbollah and the Lebanese “state” are two different things.
Naturally, any potential future revenues from offshore gas, assuming whatever is found is commercially viable, would be available to Hezbollah. What’s more, Hochstein spoke openly of the fact that the initial investments “international European and American companies,” would make in Lebanon would be in “southern Lebanon.” That is, in Hezbollah’s heartland.
The Biden administration would like to see more than just energy companies invest in the Hezbollah-run order in Lebanon. The Biden team, in tandem with Macron, has been pressing Saudi Arabia to do just that. Even after the kingdom publicly declared it wanted nothing to do with Lebanon, Hochstein still reiterated the administration’s call for the Gulf states to give “political and financial support.”
In particular, the Biden administration wants the Saudis to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and other security agencies. In that desperate effort’s most bizarre moment, the administration and the Macron government had the US and French ambassadors in Lebanon travel to Riyadh last July to plead with the kingdom to resume funding to Beirut.
The LAF represents the flip side of the administration’s fictional take on Lebanon. The false distinction between Hezbollah and so-called “state institutions” serves as cover for injecting funds to stabilize the Hezbollah-run order. The Saudis recognize this as an American fantasy and have brushed off these requests, in the recognition that they would only be propping up an Iranian satrapy.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, has doubled-down on finding what it has euphemistically dubbed “creative ways” to underwrite the Hezbollah-run order. Since rushing some $60 million in cash to the LAF command in June, the administration has been preoccupied with mining for more money, including reprogramming funds appropriated years earlier, in order to subsidize more LAF expenditures and underwrite the salaries of LAF personnel. It is looking to do the same with other security agencies — all on the US taxpayer’s dime.
Although the administration has justified this wholesale welfare program by saying the LAF is unable to pay for maintenance, fuel, food, or medicine, the US continues to send more expensive military equipment to the LAF. In November, the US ambassador to Lebanon chaperoned the LAF commander around Washington, DC, as he met with members of Congress and Defense and State Department officials, in order to secure more funding. One idea the administration is discussing involves the creation of a fund, totaling some $86 million a year, to directly supplement LAF salaries with a monthly stipend. The fund would be managed by the United Nations, thereby allowing the administration and other potential donors to bypass domestic laws that impede directly supplementing salaries of foreign troops.
In addition to managing Lebanon’s security sector, the administration decided to take on Lebanon’s chronically dysfunctional energy sector as well. The solution it settled on is to wheel Egyptian gas and Jordanian surplus electricity to Lebanon through Syria. In the process, the administration has circumvented sanctions on the Syrian regime, and has opened the door for Arab re-engagement with Bashar Assad. Moreover, when Hezbollah announced it would bring in Iranian shipments of fuel to Lebanon, the administration welcomed it.
That the Biden administration is propping up the Hezbollah-run order in Beirut, and even providing relief for Iran’s Syrian ally, is a feature, not an anomaly, of their “Lebanon policy.” It’s not only that this posture is a logical corollary of its policy of realignment with Iran, which is built on recognizing Iranian spheres of influence in the region. It’s also that the nature of Lebanon inevitably leads to this endpoint. Structurally, the Lebanese system draws in foreign western powers to underwrite its Hezbollah-dominated political order in an accommodation with the regional power, Iran, which runs the order through its local representative. The bottom line is constant: perpetual investment.
Both France and the US have signed on to this accommodation with Iran, but they approach it differently. Whereas the French are open about the need for partnership with the Iranians in Lebanon, they are cynical enough to have others pay for it. Hence, they are content to see the US securing their Lebanese holdings. The Biden administration, meanwhile, prefers to dissimulate. It doubles down on a policy of underwriting a Hezbollah-dominated system while hiding behind the fiction of a distinct “Lebanese state.” And thus, the US is simply pouring its own citizens’ money into maintaining Iranian real estate under Hezbollah management.
Critics accuse admin of 'delivering a dressed-up Chanukah present to the regime'
The Biden administration quietly waived sanctions on Iran to allow the hardline regime to sell electricity to Iraq, according to a non-public notification obtained by the Washington Free Beacon that was provided to Congress just as nuclear talks between the United States and Tehran resumed this week.
The timing of the waiver notification—which was signed Nov. 19 but not transmitted to Congress until Nov. 29, the day nuclear negotiations resumed—has prompted accusations the Biden administration is offering concessions to Tehran to generate goodwill as talks aimed at securing a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal restart following a months-long standoff.
During the several-month pause, Tehran increased its nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium and installation of advanced nuclear centrifuges. One senior congressional source familiar with the matter said the delay in transmitting the waiver to Congress indicates the administration is sensitive to the optics of waving sanctions just as negotiations resume.
Richard Goldberg, the former director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction on Trump’s White House National Security Council, told the Washington Free Beacon that the latest electricity waiver amounts to a “dressed-up Chanukah present to” Iran.
“This is just another unfortunate example of projecting weakness and deference at a time when the U.S. needs to build leverage and project strength,” said Goldberg, who is now a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “If the waiver was going to be renewed for Iraq relations, it should have been messaged and announced well before arrival in Vienna. It just screams desperation.”
Iran insists the United States unwind all economic sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration, a demand the Biden administration says it is willing to make good on. The E3—Germany, the United Kingdom, and France—said on Friday, however, that Iran’s demands are “not serious,” according to reports. “Iran is backtracking on almost all of the difficult compromises reached in months of tough negotiations and is demanding substantial changes to the text,” E3 diplomats were quoted as saying in Axios.
The sanctions waiver gives Iran another 120 days to sell electricity to Iraq without facing penalties, an arrangement that has generated income for the hardline regime. The Trump administration had limited the waiver’s time frame in an effort to wind down these sales, but the Biden administration renewed it for the maximum period of 120 days.
The State Department says it attempted to “deliver the classified portion on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 23 and 24, but due to the closure of congressional offices in connection to the Thanksgiving holiday were not able to identify appropriate recipients.” Due to this delay, Congress did not receive the information until Monday.
The State Department maintains in the waiver that Iranian electricity sales to Iraq remain “in the national security interest of the United States.” Iraq’s failure to reduce its reliance on Iranian electricity necessitated the United States to waive sanctions to enable these sales, according to the waiver.
“In light of the considerations detailed in the classified annex to this report, the secretary determined this waiver is in the national security interest of the United States, and vital to the national security of the United States, with respect to Iraq, and certifies that this jurisdiction faced exceptional circumstances preventing it from significantly reducing its purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran,” according to the waiver, which is signed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “Iraq continues to be a critical partner in the region, and its continued concrete political and economic cooperation is expected as a result of this waiver.”
A State Department spokesman, speaking only on background, confirmed the waiver was issued and said that it is meant to help ensure Iraq can generate energy. The spokesman would not comment on the timing of the waiver, or if it was part of an effort to ease nuclear negotiations with Iran.
“The secretary has renewed the sanctions waiver for Iraq to engage in financial transactions related to the import of electricity from Iran,” the spokesman said. “The waiver ensures that Iraq is able to meet its short-term energy needs while it takes steps to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy imports.” The waiver was granted “at the secretary [of state’s] discretion.”
As the first week of talks come to a close, Iran and the United States appear to be at an impasse.
Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Twitter on Friday that “a good deal is within reach if the West shows goodwill.” This includes the removal of all sanctions and other measures aimed at keeping Iran from completing construction on a functional nuclear weapon.
Iran is enriching uranium, the key component in an atomic bomb, to levels surpassing 20 percent purity, which is barred under the current terms of the nuclear accord. Reports this week indicate that Iran is taking steps to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, which is weapons-grade fuel.
United Against Nuclear Iran, a watchdog group, said on Friday that Tehran is committing nuclear extortion as the West entertains its demands at the negotiating table in Vienna.
“The Biden administration has asserted that the U.S. will not allow Iran to use this round of talks as cover to accelerate its nuclear program. Iran is showing, however, that it needs no pretext to continue on its path to a nuclear weapons capability. It is speeding in that direction today,” UANI CEO Mark D. Wallace, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement. “The leaders of the international community choose not to see what is plainly evident. The JCPOA—in recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium—provided the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with the option to resort to the nuclear extortion it is carrying out now.”
Iran touts US failure in Afghanistan as it increases enrichment of weapons-grade uranium
Iran is set to hold a series of war drills with Russia and China, as the hardline regime celebrates the United States’ bungled evacuation in Afghanistan and boosts its enrichment of nuclear weapons-grade uranium to historically high levels.
Iranian and Russian leaders announced on Monday that their countries, along with China, will hold joint maritime war exercises in the Persian Gulf later this year or early in 2022, according to Iran’s state-controlled media. The countries said they will focus on “shipping security and combating piracy” as the United States reduces its military footprint in the region following its marred withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The announcement comes as the rogue countries step up their involvement in war-torn Afghanistan amid a hurried effort by the Biden administration to evacuate U.S. personnel from the country. Iran, Russia, and China have all expressed an interest in replacing the United States as a powerbroker in the nation and working with the newly installed Taliban government. Iran’s foreign ministry announced that “Iran is in contact with all parties in Afghanistan to pave the ground for dialogue and reconciliation” and that the Russian and Chinese embassies remain functioning.
Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, celebrated what he called America’s “military failure” in Afghanistan last week, saying the Biden administration’s “military defeat and its withdrawal must become an opportunity to restore life, security, and durable peace in Afghanistan.” Iranian officials also have sought to increase ties with the Taliban, historically a regional enemy, as it expands its footprint in the region.
As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates for the United States, Iran has increased its enrichment of uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported late last week that Iran produced uranium metals that were enriched up to 20 percent purity for the first time in its history. It also amped up its uranium enrichment program to 60 percent purity, a threshold level that allows the regime to produce the fuel needed for a nuclear weapon.
The move was met with consternation by the United States and its European allies, but they did not take any steps to sanction Iran or issue penalties for its breach of the 2015 nuclear accord. The United States said Iran must cease its enrichment, but would not go further than a public reproach. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also acknowledged their concerns on the IAEA report in a joint statement on Thursday.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Free Beacon that “the botched Afghanistan drawdown is a propaganda coup for Tehran.”
The Islamic Republic “has long advanced the idea that America can be forced from the region through a sustained death-by-a-thousand-cuts military strategy,” Taleblu said. “Moreover, it is trying to get local actors who are pro-American to accommodate rising Iranian power by saying those who work with Washington will one day be abandoned.”
Iran’s latest enrichment levels are a signal to the U.S. administration that the country “is increasingly comfortable with escalation and has survived peak pressure,” Taleblu said. “Would you be afraid of a state which has denigrated instruments of national power like economic sanctions and military force in a bid to change your national security policy?”
As Iran increases its regional footprint and funds terrorist groups operating in and around Afghanistan, the Biden administration is pursuing negotiations aimed at securing a revamped nuclear agreement.
The State Department has made clear that it remains open to talks even as Iran refuses to come back to the bargaining table. Tehran wants full-scale sanctions relief and access to hard currency, but claims the Biden administration is not going far enough in its concessions, which are rumored to include the removal of sanctions on Iran’s financial system and other sources of revenue for the regime.
U.S. Iran envoy Robert Malley said last week the Biden administration is prepared to present Iran with a new nuclear deal should talks on reentering the 2015 accord fall apart, according to Politico.
Iran recently enlisted U.S. ally Japan in its pursuit of sanctions relief. Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi landed in Tehran over the weekend to discuss ways both countries can pressure the Biden administration into granting Iran sanctions relief.
“To revive the [nuclear deal], the United States must abandon its excessive demands,” Motegi was quoted as saying following meetings with high-ranking Iranian government officials.
The Biden administration came into office with the hope of reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal with Iran—and thereby reduce tensions in the Middle East, an area of the world to which it would rather pay less attention. President Joe Biden has stated that the United States would reenter the JCPOA provided Iran comes back into compliance with its terms, but Iranian leaders have insisted on the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions first. Furthermore, Biden has indicated his desire for the agreement to address other areas, such as the Iranian ballistic missile program. The newly elected Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, a protégé of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has stated that areas not covered by the original JCPOA are off the table. Negotiations in Vienna among Iran and China, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain (with the United States on the margins) have to date failed to reach an agreement.
The background to the current impasse is complicated. On July 14, 2015, the Obama administration, along with China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom, signed the JCPOA limiting Iran’s ability to process fissile material. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the agreement six days later. The nuclear deal, the culmination of twenty months of negotiations, placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for a period of fifteen years. In return the international community lifted economic sanctions, which had crippled Iran’s domestic economy. The nuclear deal was touted as the signature foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure.
The Iranian nuclear program began in the late-1950s under the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1970 Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in return for assistance under the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” program. The Iranian nuclear program went into abeyance after the 1979 revolution, with a number of nuclear scientists fleeing the country. After the disastrous eight-year war with Iraq concluded in 1988, Iran resumed nuclear research with the assistance of China, Pakistan, and Russia. A 2003 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report concluded that Iran had violated the NPT, leading to negotiations with the United Kingdom, France, and Germany (EU 3). The resulting Paris agreement in November 2004 led to Iran’s suspension of nuclear enrichment and conversion.
The election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to the collapse of the Paris agreement. In February 2006, Iran resumed enrichment activities at Natanz. Four months later, the United States, Russia, and China joined the EU 3 to form the P5+1, which worked to limit Iran’s enrichment capabilities. The first of six United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutionsaddressing Iran’s violation of the NPT passed in July 2006. The UNSC called on Iran to cease nuclear enrichment and imposed economic sanctions to pressure the Iranian government to comply with its resolutions.
Iran failed to comply with the resolutions. In September 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama revealed intelligence indicating the existence of an underground enrichment facility in Fordow, near the religious center of Qom. IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei called for the lifting of sanctions in return for Iran’s suspension of enrichment, to no avail. The Green Movement in the summer of 2009 had shaken Ahmadinejad’s government, and his hardline crackdown on civilian protesters signaled its unwillingness to compromise with perceived enemies, foreign or domestic. The United States and Israel then deployed the Stuxnet computer worm, which interrupted the operation of centrifuges at Natanz, ultimately destroying approximately a thousand of the machines.
The election of a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, in June 2013 broke the diplomatic logjam. Three days after his inauguration in August, Rouhani publicly called for a resumption of negotiations with the P5+1. The next month Rouhani spoke by telephone with Obama, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The first high-level contacts between the United States and Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979 signaled the diplomatic possibilities surrounding the nuclear file. The Obama administration was concerned that absent an agreement, Iran could develop a nuclear weapon within a matter of months if it chose to do so. This danger could lead to a preemptive strike by Israel, or to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s strategic competitor in the Middle East.
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva led to the signing on November 24, 2013, of a Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities in return for the partial lifting of economic sanctions while negotiations sought a more permanent agreement. That agreement, the JCPOA, was finally inked on July 14, 2015. At its core, the agreement would extend the “breakout time”—the amount of time required for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon—to more than twelve months.
Specifics of the JCPOA included a ten-year cap on the number of operational centrifuges (from more than 20,000 to just over 6,000), a fifteen-year uranium enrichment cap of 3.67 percent (nuclear weapons require concentrations in excess of 90 percent), a fifteen-year cap on the stockpile of enriched uranium (from 10,000 to just 300 kilograms), redesign of the Arak heavy water reactor for peaceful nuclear research, a twenty-year period of continuous IAEA inspection of centrifuge production facilities, the termination of all UN Security Council Resolutions regarding the Iranian nuclear program, the cessation of U.S. and EU sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors, and the resumption of economic commerce including the sale of passenger aircraft and automobiles to Iran. Additionally, the United States and the EU released approximately $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets. U.S. sanctions on Iran targeting human rights, ballistic missiles, and terrorism remained unaffected by the agreement.
The Obama administration signed the JCPOA but refrained from submitting it to the Senate for ratification. This gave the agreement the force of an executive order, which could be quickly undone by a future Republican president. If President Obama desired a lasting foreign policy achievement, this was a fatal error.
Republican lawmakers and Israeli government officials immediately attacked the agreement as insufficient to permanently halt Iran’s nuclear aspirations. While negotiations were in progress, on March 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington and spoke to a joint session of Congress, decrying the agreement as insufficient to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions. Without deeper and permanent concessions, Iran could follow North Korea into the club of nuclear-armed nations. Any deal should also be contingent on the cessation of Iran’s bad behavior in the Middle East: its support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; its sponsorship of terrorism, and its public calls for the destruction of Israel.
The unspoken hope by the Obama administration was that the Iranian regime would moderate by the time the restrictions in the nuclear deal lifted. This was a significant miscalculation. Following the signing of the JCPOA, Iran abided by its restrictions but used the resources freed up by the deal to fund proxy groups across the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria to Houthis in Yemen to various military groups in Iraq. The revolutionary generation of 1979 was not disappearing—it was metastasizing. The quixotic hope for a more moderate Iranian government never came to pass, and probably will not happen provided the government remains in the hands of an all-powerful religious leader with no incentive to compromise.
The Trump administration entered office with a more clear-eyed vision of the sources of Iranian misconduct. The president lambasted the JCPOA as seriously flawed, deciding to withdraw from the agreement, and reimpose U.S. economic sanctions on May 8, 2018. The other members of the P5+1 remained in the agreement, but without access to the U.S. banking system or the ability to export large amounts of oil, Iran’s economy—80 percent of its exports linked to oil—tanked. The Trump administration enacted a policy of “maximum pressure,” attempting to force Iran to agree to deeper and more permanent cuts in its nuclear program, limitations on its ballistic missile program, and withdrawal of support for proxy and terrorist groups in the region.
Iran retaliated by instituting a policy of “maximum resistance.” Iranian forces and proxy groups attacked U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East, including strikes on Saudi oil facilities, interdiction of tanker traffic in the Gulf, proxy attacks on U.S. service personnel in Iraq, and the downing of a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The Trump administration responded on January 3, 2020, by killing Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, was also killed; Iraqi paramilitary groups continue to target U.S. forces in Iraq to this day to exact revenge. Iran also walked back portions of the JCPOA: doubling the number of centrifuges in operation, enriching uranium to 5 percent purity, and ending on-site inspections by the IAEA.
Despite the failure of the maximum pressure campaign to change Iranian behavior or induce it to renegotiate the JCPOA, the Biden administration would be ill-advised to reenter the agreement without exacting further concessions from Iran. Some of the restrictions of the current JCPOA expire in just four years, without a change in Iranian behavior or ambitions in sight. Time is on the side of the United States; Iran needs an agreement to restore its economic fortunes far more than the Biden administration needs a foreign policy achievement. The administration should remain firm and demand a revised and stronger agreement. In the best of all worlds, a new and stronger JCPOA could be presented to the Senate for ratification, giving it more permanence. Senate ratification would be a heavy lift in the current domestic political environment but provided the Biden administration gives due credit to Trump’s policy of maximum pressure, bi-partisan backing of a treaty might be possible. A treaty capable of Senate ratification will require much deeper Iranian concessions than are currently on the table, but such is the price Iran must pay to reach an agreement with the Great Satan that can withstand a change in presidential administrations.
By The Hill•
Lebanon is facing a dangerous combination of accelerating crises — economic, political and societal. Although Lebanon is a small country, important issues for U.S. national interest and geo-strategy are at stake. Yet, currently, American Middle East foreign policy is devoted to the single obsession of the Iran negotiations, leaving little oxygen for other matters. This is a mistake. The Biden administration should develop a more nuanced engagement with the region and especially a robust response to Lebanon’s pending collapse.
The Lebanese currency has lost close to 90 percent of its value, pushing much of the country below the poverty line, with many families relying on remittances from relatives abroad. Yet even those lifelines cannot make up for the shortages in commodities: gasoline, medications and food are all in short supply. Add to this a crumbling infrastructure that can supply electricity for only a few hours every day.
Meanwhile, a political stalemate blocks the formation of an effective government that could institute reforms that might alleviate some of the problems. Instead, the political class, largely viewed as incorrigibly corrupt, is making no effort to meet the needs of the public. One bright light is the emergence of vibrant oppositional forces. But they remain fragmented, and elections will not take place until next year.
Leadership change may therefore be too far in the future to rescue the crumbling institutions that once enjoyed a strong international reputation, especially Lebanese universities and hospitals. Now the talented personnel on which those institutions depend are trying to leave for better paying jobs abroad. After the troubled decades of civil war and occupations, after the devastation of COVID-19 and the massive destruction of the explosion in the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, this already fragile country faces even greater disorder.
Given the extent of the suffering, there is every reason to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, as the United States is already doing. The U.S. also provides important training support to the Lebanese armed forces, although the scope of that mission has been shrinking. Otherwise, American engagement is quite limited. Washington should do more and put Lebanon higher on the list of foreign policy priorities for four reasons
1) Grand Strategy: Lebanon presents a clear case of the deleterious consequences of a pivot away from the region, given the reality of great power competition. If the U.S. does not provide leadership, it opens the door for other powers, notably Russia. Its naval repair facility in Tartus, Syria, is less than a 40-mile drive from the Lebanese port of Tripoli, which could be ripe for Moscow’s taking. Lebanon could become one more stepping-stone for Russia’s advance in the Middle East, unless the U.S. reasserts its role there.
2) Terrorism: The discrepancy between the degradation of living conditions in Lebanon and the immobility of the political class can lead to social unrest, a breeding ground for the sort of Islamist terrorism that has plagued the larger region. One should not discount the possibility of a resurgence of ISIS or intentional spillover effects from the Syrian civil war, which led to bombings in Beirut and Tripoli only eight years ago. The more such violence proliferates, the greater the chance that terror incubated in the region can spread beyond it, including to the U.S.
3) Refugees: Unless the Lebanese crises are addressed, the resulting social disorder is likely to produce a new wave of refugees, fleeing the ravages of a collapsed economy or, in a worst-case scenario, the resurgence of sectarian conflict. The Assad regime in Syria is not above provoking violence in Lebanon in order to achieve the sort of demographic reengineering it has undertaken at home, where it has forced targeted populations to flee, a cynical form of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. should be concerned about the destabilizing effects of renewed refugee flows into allies such as Jordan and Turkey, already hosting large refugee populations, or into the European Union, where the 2015 refugee wave continues to have disruptive political repercussions.
4) Iran: A collapse of the Lebanese state can only benefit Iran and its most anti-American political forces. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, might see an opportunity to seize power directly or, more strategically, it might prefer to consolidate its control in its strongholds and let the rest of the country dissipate, precisely in order to demonstrate the weakness of western democracy. In either case, Tehran would win, unless the U.S. engages in strategic ways to address Lebanon’s dilemmas.
Arguments that it is in the U.S. national interest to engage more strongly in Lebanon run counter to current foreign policy predispositions in Washington. A prevailing orientation deprioritizes the Middle East in general in order to shift attention to the Indo-Pacific. But that viewpoint does not need to lead to a full-scale abandoning of the Middle East that hands the region over to America’s great power adversaries.
In addition, the Biden administration views the region primarily in terms of Iran and a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Many Lebanese understand this and correctly fear that Hezbollah will benefit from a windfall when the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran. There is no indication that the U.S. negotiation team is seriously demanding a termination of Iran’s regional destabilization campaigns, including its support for Hezbollah. Yet getting to a new deal with Tehran without such a constraint basically means appeasing Iran by trading away Lebanese sovereignty.
American national interest, including American values, requires a different path: Instead of misusing Lebanon as an accommodation to Tehran, the U.S. should make a stand in Lebanon, with policies designed to renew its democracy (and purge its corruption) and to protect its sovereignty by diminishing Hezbollah, as first steps toward pushing back against Iran’s broader expansionist ambitions.
Lebanon is a small country, but the current crisis has outsized geo-strategic implications for the U.S.
There will be no peace between Iran and its enemies
Elections have consequences, and one consequence of the 2020 election will be a return to the foreign policy of the Obama era that seeks to punish Israel, isolate the Arabs, elevate Iran as a regional power, and assure friend and foe alike that tough talk from American leaders is just that: talk.
Representatives of the United States will return to Vienna this week with the aim of lifting sanctions on an Iranian regime led by religious fanatics hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons, dominating its neighbors, and eliminating the Jewish state.
Appeasement is never a slog, so it’s a mission they are all but certain to accomplish.
It also reveals the hollowness of the tough talk President Joe Biden offered up on the campaign trail, when he said he would not drop sanctions on Iran without first strengthening the Obama-era nuclear deal. His secretary of state, Tony Blinken, assured the Senate just weeks ago that he would not allow terrorism sanctions against Iran to be held hostage to any fresh nuclear talks. Of course these were lies and all sides knew it. Easy promises to make and easier to break.
Already, Iran envoy and friend of Hamas Rob Malley has lowered the bar: He told PBS News on Sunday that the United States would return to the deal if the Iranians agreed to do so. “Our goal is to see whether we can agree on a roadmap back to compliance on both sides,” Malley said, adding that the administration’s goal is to get on “the same page” as the mullahs.
The motivation for the coming realignment in American foreign policy appears to be a left-wing inverse of “owning the libs”—in this case, owning right-wing hawks, neoconservatives, pro-Israel Jews and their gentile allies. The Left cannot contain its glee and anticipation at the coming return to the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Biden administration’s—and America’s—all-but-certain humiliation seems only to have heightened their excitement. That humiliation will be painful, but it will do no more damage to the cause of regime change than it will to Iran’s nuclear program.
The Obama-era deal was a tragedy. The repetition of that history is farce, and whatever deal the Biden administration strikes will disintegrate as surely as the last. The Iranians may be delusional and paranoid, but their pursuit of nuclear weapons is not irrational. Their enemies are powerful and the current leadership faces an existential threat from Israel.
A new deal can’t change any of that.
There are many possible outcomes. The vindication of Hussein Rouhani, Javad Zarif, Tony Blinken, and Rob Malley as peacemakers is not among them.
By The Hill•
U.S. air strikes successfully destroyed facilities used by Iran-backed militia in eastern Syria last Thursday. But the operation also exposed the contradictions in the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. Returning to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) has been central to the Biden foreign policy vision, contingent only on Iran’s meeting its obligations. Addressing the several flaws in the agreement, such as the exclusion of Iran’s regional destabilization efforts, is supposed to be postponed to some future second stage of wider talks. Yet the U.S. and its allies face continuous assaults from Iran’s proxies. The need for the recent attacks therefore demonstrates how the problem of the militia should be addressed up front as part of any return to the deal. The JCPOA needs to be fixed and rewritten, not just revived.
Despite Biden signaling his intent to reconcile with Iran, Tehran has accelerated the development of its nuclear program. In December, the Iranian Parliament voted to approve enriching uranium to 20 percent, speeding ahead toward weapons-grade material. On Feb. 7, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif remained intransigent, underscoring that negotiations cannot expand to include any topics beyond the original agreement, i.e. the militia and Iran’s ballistic missiles program. More recently, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even threatened enrichment to 60 percent. And Iran continues to reject offers to engage in negotiations. The Biden effort to open the negotiating door is clearly not eliciting good will.
Meanwhile, Iran’s proxies have continued attacking U.S. assets and allies. In Yemen, Houthi fighters have been waging an all-out offensive in Marib Province. In the past weeks, in Iraq, a truck convoy with supplies for the U.S.-led coalition faced missile attacks near Basra, rockets hit the airport in Erbil, with at least one death and several wounded, and militia similarly attacked Balad airbase north of Baghdad. In Lebanon, prominent Hezbollah-critic Luqman Salim was assassinated, his body dumped by the side of the road. No one should doubt that this activity is coordinated out of Tehran; none of it points toward any interest in conciliation.
The U.S. airstrike was a legitimate response to the wave of militia attacks in Iraq. Yet the military operation, pushing back mildly against Iran’s assets, stands at odds with a series of diplomatic steps that the administration has taken, involving repeated one-sided concessions to Tehran. Since coming into office, the administration has been winding down its predecessor’s “maximum pressure campaign” step by step. It has lifted travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in the U.S. It has retracted the Trump administration’s effort to initiate the snap-back provision of the JCPOA, thereby refusing to object to Iran’s weapons imports, while announcing limitations on weapons sales to Iran’s antagonist, Saudi Arabia. It has taken the Houthis off the list of terrorist organizations.
Yet the biggest gift to Tehran has been opening the window to allow South Korea to unfreeze up to $7 billion in Iranian assets. These funds amount to a quid pro quo to induce the Iranians to release a South Korean vessel they seized in the Gulf. This can only be viewed as paying ransom for piracy. More importantly, the funds transfer will undermine the effect of the sanctions by replenishing Iran’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. During the Trump administration, our European allies tried to circumvent the sanctions in order to reduce the pressure on Iran. Now the Biden administration is itself undercutting the sanctions before formally lifting them. It is an odd negotiation strategy to give up one’s leverage even before getting to the table.
The U.S. air strikes show that the administration recognizes the threat posed by Iran’s proxies: All the more reason to include the question of Iran’s regional destabilization strategy in reopened negotiations. However, the militia are not the only problem that needs to be addressed. The original agreement also unwisely excluded Iran’s missiles program, which poses a threat across the Middle East and even into Europe. Nor has much mention been made of human rights, despite the Biden administration’s claim to view them as central to American foreign policy. A future agreement should include a commitment that Iran fulfill its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which it is a signatory. Human rights organizations repeatedly point out how Iran engages in rights violations. The U.S. should insist that this stop before it lifts sanctions and agrees to any new treaty.
Yet the problems with the JCPOA are not only a matter of what it omits. Its egregious sin of commission is the sunset process that clears the way for Iran to pursue a legitimate path to nuclear weapons by the end of the decade. Some of the sunset clauses will become operative even before the end of the Biden administration. This fatal flaw needs to be fixed.
The administration deserves credit for responding to the militia attacks. Yet that show of force does not make up for the policy of premature concessions, winding down maximum pressure even as Iran rushes toward enrichment and directs its proxies toward aggression. Instead, the administration should make use of the leverage it has to push for an improved agreement that addresses wider regional security concerns, Iran’s human rights record as well as an effective end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Sanctions relief didn't bring stability in 2015. And it won't now
Back in September, Joe Biden described his Iran policy in an op-ed for CNN. After several paragraphs criticizing President Trump, Biden made an “unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Then he offered Tehran “a credible path back to diplomacy.” The terms were simple. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal,” Biden wrote, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Sanctions would be lifted. And Biden is sticking with his plan. Recently Tom Friedman asked him if the offer stands. “It’s going to be hard,” Biden replied, “but yeah.”
Sure, Biden admitted, the agreement did not cover Iran’s missile programs, or support for terrorism, or human-rights violations, or malign behavior in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Absolutely, it contained a sunset clause that freed Iran of its obligations, and limited inspections to non-military installations. True, Iran maintained its archive of nuclear weapons research (until Israel revealed it to the world in 2018). And yes, the regional dynamic has changed. But these are secondary issues. “The best way to achieve getting some stability in the region,” Biden said, is “with the nuclear program.”
“Stability” is not how most people would describe the Middle East after 2015. Iran continued to launch missiles and send weapons and rockets to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Houthis in Yemen. Iran continued to hold captive U.S. citizens and harass and even detain U.S. naval personnel. Iran continued to harbor al-Qaeda’s number two, until he was killed earlier this year.
The economic benefits from sanctions relief went straight to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its leader, General Qassem Soleimani, used this walking around money to sow murder and chaos before Trump ended his reign of terror last January. The nuclear deal did not bring order to a Greater Middle East where the Islamic State ruled large parts of Iraq and Syria, and where extremist ideologies inspired attacks in America, France, and the United Kingdom.
It is fantastic to think that the Iran deal stabilized anything. But the agreement has replaced the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a kind of philosopher’s stone that, according to the liberal imagination, transmutes ethno-sectarian animosity into peace and toleration. In reality, the benefits of the nuclear deal were just as illusory as the promise of Oslo. Concessions did nothing but embolden the agents of terror.
That’s because negotiations were not conducted in good faith. One side, earnest and idealistic, was willing to pay a steep price to attain its aims. The other side wanted to pocket its gains while dissembling, diverting from, or otherwise undermining the spirit of diplomacy. This cynicism and double-talk isn’t a function of religion or ethnicity. It is a function of regime. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic Republic of Iran are autocracies. Neither government respects the dignity and liberty of its own people. There is no reason to assume they would respect ours.
Recent weeks have provided remedial instruction for those unwilling or unable to acknowledge the reality of Iran’s outlaw government. On December 9, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif gave a Persian-language interview in which he said that “America is in no position to set conditions for its return” to the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA. Then he used anti-Semitic slang to express his support for Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “popular referendum” that would decide whether Israel should continue to exist. “We’re not talking about throwing the k—s into the sea, or about a military attack, or about suicide operations,” Zarif said. A simple up-or-down vote should do the trick.
No one in the English-speaking world would have known about Zarif’s comments were it not for the indefatigable translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Needless to say, when his despicable language was publicized, Zarif claimed in a tweet that, ha-ha-ha, he was just joking. “I was mocking the allegation that Iran seeks to ‘throw the Jews into the sea’ and reiterating our solution is a referendum with participation of ALL: Jews, Muslims, Christians,” he wrote. In a favorite trick of demagogues everywhere, Zarif cast himself as the victim, and said it was really his critics who were biased and beneath contempt. How could anyone accuse Minister Zarif or his government of anti-Semitism? It’s not like his supreme leader denies the Holocaust and says Israel won’t exist in 20 years. “MEMRI,” Zarif wrote, “has sunk to a new low.”
It is Zarif who’s hit bottom. Around the time the foreign minister dropped the k-bomb, Iran executed the 47-year-old Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist and dissident who had been living in France until Tehran’s agents lured him under false pretenses to Iraq, where they kidnapped and arrested him. Zam’s killing was intended to demonstrate that no Iranian who speaks out against the mullahs is safe. It also sparked an international outcry from the very people whose good opinion Iran needs the most. It’s “another horrifying human rights violation by the Iranian regime,” tweetedincoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan. “We will join our partners in calling out and standing up to Iran’s abuses.”
One way to stand up to “Iran’s abuses” would be resisting the temptation to reenter the nuclear deal. Using the sanctions leverage bequeathed to him by Trump, Biden might try linking not only missiles and terrorism but also human rights to a renewal of negotiations. Iranian refusal would not be a “failure of diplomacy.” It would be confirmation that Tehran has no interest in changing its ways. The mullahs understand that the second they relax their grip, or appear weak vis-à-vis America, their government will crumble. Paying them off to abide by an agreement whose terms they set is an evasion. Stability in the Middle East won’t come when America rejoins the JCPOA. It will arrive when the Iranian people put an end to the Islamic revolution.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Biden never spared his words criticizing the Trump administration’s Iran policy, in particular the decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This so-called “Iran Deal” was the signature foreign policy accomplishment of the Obama administration, which his successor revoked in May 2018. In its place, the U.S. has been pursuing a “maximum pressure campaign”–if not always consistently–through sanctions, with the goal of forcing Iran back to the negotiating table.
The prospect of a return to the JCPOA fit into the Biden campaign’s general political narrative of returning to the policies of the Obama era. Reestablishing the status quo ante Trump as far as Iran is concerned could additionally contribute to rebuilding trans-Atlantic ties, since the European allies are eager to see the U.S. back in the JCPOA. More broadly, a return would amplify Biden’s stated goal of reasserting an American commitment to multilateralism, by drawing a clean line separating him from the Trump-era unilateralism associated with the program of “America First.” Getting back into the Iran Deal is a likely priority of a Biden agenda.
However, instead of a straight-forward return to the JCPOA, there have been suggestions of the need for an alternative to the JCPOA. Biden has said as much, although sometimes in the form of a two-phase process: a return and then a more expansive agreement or a “better deal.” Many view the JCPOA in its current form as insufficient, failing to address a range of contentious points. Secretary of State Pompeo enumerated twelve terms for an improved agreement in May, 2018, including the return of all U.S. prisoners, ending Iran’s missiles program, and terminating Tehran’s destabilizing regional foreign policy.
Yet for the credibility of American foreign policy broadly–with Iran, in the Middle East and globally–it would be a grievous mistake to pursue any agreement that does not give significant attention to a file that the Obama-Biden administration largely disregarded: human rights. Iran is major violator of international human rights norms. This is no secret, certainly not to the U.S. government. On the contrary, the U.S. reports on human rights abuses regularly. Leaving human rights out of the prospective negotiations with Iran would be an indefensible betrayal of the Iranian people as well as American ideals.
Rights have been looming larger in American foreign policy recently. The Trump administration’s treatment of China has increasingly called out human rights abuses, while the Department of State under Secretary Pompeo has underscored the importance of human rights, including with its Report on Unalienable Rights. The Biden administration will have to decide if it will continue this emphasis on rights or whether it will revert to the ignoring of human rights, which Secretary Kerry excluded from the so-called “comprehensive” Iran negotiations.
It is important to highlight the egregiousness of Iran’s human rights violations, even if space here permits for only the shortest of summaries, drawing on U.S. government sources.
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the State Department issues annual reports on human rights in all countries. The 2019 report on Iran gives prominent attention to the violent suppression of last year’s protest movement: “In response to widespread protests that began November 15 after a fuel price increase, the government blocked almost all international and local internet connections for most of a week, and security forces used lethal force to end the protests, killing approximately 1,500 persons and detaining 8,600, according to international media reports. There was no indication government entities were pursuing independent or impartial investigations into protester deaths.” Astonishingly, this is only the tip of the iceberg; the report also describes systematic abuse of human rights by the Iranian regime, including–but not limited to–the use of torture and other degrading punishments, arbitrary arrests, unfair trial procedures, inhuman conditions in prisons, politically motivated arrests and punishments, and a systematic abuse of migrants, refugees and stateless persons.
A separate report prepared by the Office of International Religious Freedom treats Iran’s parlous record in this arena. The Iranian Constitution defines the country as an “Islamic Republic,” with special privileges reserved for Islam; the only other faiths allowed are Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, but with strict limitations on their practice. There is no genuine religious freedom. Conversion by Muslims to other faiths is prohibited, and proselytism of Muslims is a capital crime. Non-Shia Muslims, especially Sunni, face discrimination as do members of the Baha’i community in particular. Non-Muslims are excluded from serving in parliament, except for five (out of 290) seats reserved for the permitted minorities. The mandatory prioritization of Islam plays out as well with regard to clothing rules for women: “The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to ‘Islamic dress’ standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government, at times, eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished ‘un-Islamic dress’ with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab.[…] In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to Human Rights Watch, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for ‘assembly and collusion to act against national security,’ one year for ‘propaganda against the state,’ and 10 years for ‘encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.'”
In addition, the State Department’s annual report on Trafficking in Persons details Iran’s shameful record, at odds with international norms, involving human trafficking for labor, prostitution, and participation in Iran’s foreign military forays. It describes “a government policy or pattern of recruiting and using child soldiers, and a pattern of government officials perpetrating sex trafficking of adults and children with impunity. Government officials continued to perpetrate and condone trafficking crimes with impunity, both in Iran and overseas […] In addition, the government failed to identify and protect trafficking victims among vulnerable populations and continued to treat trafficking victims as criminals, including child sex trafficking victims. Victims continued to face severe punishment, including death, for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as prostitution and immigration violations.”
These three government reports provide more details, as do the accounts provided by NGOs, especially Human Rights Watchand Amnesty International. Trigger warning: some of the accounts are graphic and heart-wrenching, particularly with regard to the mistreatment of political prisoners and Iran’s use of torture.
There is no doubt that Iran is an egregious human rights violator, and it is equally certain that the U.S. government is well aware of this. Therefore, if the Biden administration insists on reopening negotiations with Teheran, it has an obligation to put human rights on the table: no sanctions relief without human rights reform. In addition to pursuing an end to Iran’s ambitions for nuclear weapons, the U.S. should insist that Iran comply with international human rights norms. If Washington does not do this, no one else will. A reasonable program could include points such as these:
In terms of internationally recognized norms, these are all reasonable policy goals; others could surely be added. In terms of the reality of Iran, achieving these goals would represent a profound amelioration of the lives of the Iranian people. In terms of decades of American policy and statute mandating the pursuit of human rights, these are exactly the sorts of goals the U.S. should pursue, especially in light of the leverage the existing sanctions program provides.
If Washington fails to raise human rights concerns in the pending negotiations with Iran, it will squander this leverage, and it will lose credibility to raise the question of rights toward any other regime, in the Middle East and beyond. Cynics, realists and pro-regime Iran lobbyists will dismiss these human rights concerns as fabricated, marginal to disarmament concerns, or matters of legitimate “cultural difference.” Yet an American administration intent on laying claim to global leadership should integrate them firmly into its foreign policy agenda.
U.N. reprimands Tehran amid ongoing nuclear ramp-up, development of missiles
Iran engaged in covert nuclear work that breached international accords as recently as 2019, according to nuclear inspectors who have been blocked from accessing these contested military sites.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of governors officially reprimanded Iran on Friday for denying inspectors access to at least two sites now known to have been part of Tehran’s secretive atomic weapons program.
The two locations have remained off limits to the IAEA despite evidence they were used for illicit nuclear operations in the last year. At least one of these sites contained a secret high-explosives testing site that could have been used to advance Tehran’s nuclear know-how.
The resolution was forwarded by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all of which are still party to the nuclear accord with Tehran. While these nations have sought to preserve the accord, their willingness to publicly reprimand Iran is a new sign of mounting frustration with the country’s behavior. In addition to blocking IAEA access, Iran has ramped up its development of advanced missiles and enrichment of uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon, to levels needed for a bomb.
The resolution highlights what these nations described as a “continued lack of clarification regarding Agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities in Iran.”
The move was met with anger by Iranian officials, who said they will continue to block access until the international community offers greater concessions, particularly relief from biting economic sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran’s behavior is proof that it continues to lie to the world about its development of nuclear arms and has no intention of curtailing its nuclear program.
“Iran’s denial of access to IAEA inspectors and refusal to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation is deeply troubling and raises serious questions about what Iran is trying to hide,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Iranian military leaders announced on Thursday the successful test-firing of both short- and long-range cruise missiles, which could be used in a conflict with the United States and allied partners operating in the region. The firing of these missiles runs counter to United Nations restrictions on Iran’s missile program.
The tests were conducted in the Indian Ocean and Sea of Oman, according to reports from Iran’s state-controlled media. Tehran claims the military operation was “more sophisticated” and “more difficult” than previous drills.
The launch marks a significant escalation in Tehran’s ongoing standoff with U.S. military vessels operating in the region. Iranian military boats have routinely harassed American ships and sought to choke off access to key shipping lanes in international waters. The display of new cruise missiles is a warning to the United States that the Iranian regime is ready for a military confrontation.
A United Nations embargo on Iran’s purchase of advanced weaponry is set to lift later this year. If the United States fails to extend the ban, nations will be able to legally sell Iran missiles and other offensive weapons. The Trump administration is currently pressing its allies at the U.N. to extend this embargo, though these efforts are likely to be blocked by Russia and China, Tehran’s top patrons.
If the arms embargo lapses, the United States is likely to push for a so-called snapback, the reimposition of all international sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
An Iran analyst said Tehran’s latest moves are a ploy to stave off international scrutiny.
“All eyes should be on Iran now to see how it will make good on its threats which were intended to scare and prevent the vote on this critical [IAEA] resolution,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think-tank with close ties to the Trump administration. “Tehran often uses such flashpoints to incrementally ratchet up the pressure through expansion of its nuclear program.”
Ben Taleblu said that nations such as France, Germany, and the U.K. will have to get tougher on Iran if they want to change its behavior. Although they backed the IAEA’s latest censure, these nations also have worked to block the reimposition of major sanctions on Tehran.
Historically, efforts to prevent dead set regimes from acquiring nuclear weapons have been marked mostly by embarrassing diplomatic fiascos. The chronology of every state-sponsored nuclear program began with developing the necessary human resources to facilitate domestic plutonium production. In phase two, while diligently laboring on enriching uranium to the critical mass, all these states denied vehemently their intentions to become nuclear powers by emphasizing their governments inherently peaceful nature. In phase three they presented the rest of the world with a fait accompli, namely, the nuclear bomb.
Thus far, the Islamic Republic of Iran has followed the same well-trodden path. Most importantly, from its inception, the Mullahcracy has been, even within the Islamic Ummah, an international pariah. Isolated and therefore devoid of friends and allies, the two Ayatollahs, the late Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi Khomeini and the current one Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, have decided to acquire the ultimate weapon for self-preservation.
Therefore, the quest for a nuclear power Iran has started immediately after the fall of the Shah in early 1979. In 1987, the theocratic regime acquired technical schematics for building a P-1 centrifuge from the Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan network. The conversion of the Test Readiness Review that was done in 1987 by Argentina’s Applied Research Institute allowed the regime enrichment to less than 20%. In 2002, the National Council of Resistance on Iran, the political wing of the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq (MeK), revealed that Iran already built two secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak respectively. More ominously, thousands of documents seized by Israeli intelligence agents during a raid of a nondescript hanger in Shorabad district of Tehran in 2018, revealed that the regime never abandoned its clandestine quest for building a nuclear bomb. Among the documents released to the public, one that originated in 2002, contains a proposal for “warhead”, which were given the green light by the regime’s top nuclear official Moshen Fakhrizadeh. His hand-written remark in Farsi in the top left corner of the document reads in English translation: “In the name of God. Right now in a treatment process. Please archive the original script of the document. Fakhrizadeh.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had its own doubts about Tehran peaceful intentions and sincerity. As a result, the Board of Governors adopted a resolution on September 12, 2003, calling on Tehran to suspend all enrichment as well as all reprocessing-related activities. Moreover, the same resolution called upon the Iranian regime to declare all material relevant to its uranium enrichment program. Finally, the Board demanded that the regime allow the IAEA inspectors to undertake unencumbered environmental sampling at any location. The deadline for compliance was set at October 31, 2003.
In its reply, the regime seemingly indicated its readiness to comply. On October 21, 2003, Tehran agreed to meet the IAEA demands by the designated date. However, on June 18, 2004, the IAEA complained of Iran’s non-compliance. Again, Tehran notified the IAEA on November 14, 2004, that it will suspend enrichment-related activities for the duration of talks with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In this manner, Tehran prevented the IAEA Board of Governors to notify the UN Security Council. On February 27, 2005, the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran concluded an agreement to supply fuel for the nuclear reactor in Busher. A provision of this agreement mandated that Iran shall return the spent nuclear fuel to Russia. Next, Tehran announced on August 8, 2005, that it has commenced the production of uranium hexafluoride at its Isfahan facility. Following this announcement, the United States, France, and Germany froze negotiations with Tehran. Shortly thereafter, on September 24, 2005, the IAEA adopted a resolution declaring Tehran in noncompliance with the previous safeguard agreement. Most glaringly, this resolution stated that Iran’s nuclear activities combined with the absence of their peaceful nature are within the competence of the UN Security Council, opening the way for future referrals.
Sure enough, on February 4, 2006, the Board of Governors of the IAEA referred the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN Security Council. Pursuant to the resolution, the Board of Governors deemed it “necessary for Iran” to immediately suspend its enrichment related activities, reconsider the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, ratify the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, and fully cooperate with the IAEA’s investigations. As a result, Tehran informed the IAEA on February 6, 2006, that it will “voluntarily” implement the additional protocol and other non-legally binding inspection procedures. Nonetheless, on April 11th, Tehran announced that it successfully enriched uranium for the first time to 3.5%. The enriched uranium was produced at the Natanz pilot enrichment plant. On June 6th, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the Federal Republic of Germany (the P5+1) proposed a framework agreement to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then, on July 31st, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1696, elevating the IAEA’s demand for Tehran to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities legally binding for all member states. Tehran responded on August 22nd. On the one hand, it rejected the demand to suspend enrichment, but on the other hand, added that the resolution contained “elements which may be useful for a constructive approach.”
As a reply and for the first time, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1737 on December 23rd, imposing sanctions on the lslamic Republic of Iran for its refusal to suspend its enrichment-related activities.
According to the resolution, states were prohibited from transferring sensitive nuclear-and missile-related technology to Tehran. Moreover, the states were obligated to freeze the assets of ten Iranian organizations and twelve individuals for their involvement in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
In 2007, Tehran continued to defy the international community. Thus, the UN Security Council again unanimously adopted Resolution 1747, demanding that the Islamic Republic of Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Three rounds of talks followed. These talks brought forth on August 21st, a so-called “work plan.” This work plan mandated that Tehran must answer specific and long-standing questions about its nuclear activities, including activities suspected of being related to nuclear weapons developments. To make the point, the Bush administration made public on December 3rd, an unclassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. While stating “with high confidence” that Tehran stopped pursuing its nuclear weapons program approximately around the fall of 2003, it could not state with the same degree of confidence that Tehran had not resumed those activities as of mid-2007. More alarmingly, the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Islamic Republic of Iran was technically capable of producing sufficient quantities of weapon-grade
The year 2008 witnessed another UN Security Council Resolution. Resolution 1803, added new sanctions to the previous ones. Among its other provisions, it broadened the blacklist with seven new entities and thirteen more individuals. In conjunction with this resolution, the P5+1 states also proposed that Tehran shall freeze its enrichment activities in exchange for no more sanctions.
The year 2009 was a significant one for the international community. First, Tehran announced on February 2nd its successful launch of a satellite. On
September 25th, the Obama administration revealed the existence of a second secret uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, in the mountains near the holy city of Qom. On October 1st, the Obama administration agreed the supply 20% enriched uranium in exchange for Iran removing from the country the majority of its 3.5% enriched uranium. The so-called “fuel swap”, the stupid brainchild of the Obama administration, was never fully implemented by Iran.
The year 2010 saw the same old pattern. Tehran started to produce 20% enriched uranium on February 9th. On May 17th, diplomacy kicked in once more. A joint declaration by Brazil, Turkey, and the Islamic Republic of Iran tried to breathe fresh air into the old fuel swap proposal. The United States, France, and the Russian Federation rejected the proposal on the grounds that Tehran stockpiled more 3.5% enriched uranium than it is willing to give up and that Tehran systematically misled the IAEA, the UN Security Council, and everybody else concerning its additional enrichment activities. On June 9th, another UN Security Council resolution followed. Resolution 1929 significantly expanded sanctions against the theocratic regime. It also banned Tehran from nuclear-capable ballistic missile tests. Finally, the resolution imposed an arms embargo on the transfer of major weapons systems to Tehran. On June 24th, the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, tightening U.S. sanctions against legal entities investing in Iran’s energy sector, and imposing new sanctions on legal entities that sold refined petroleum to Tehran. On July 26th, the European Union joined the United States by agreeing to impose its additional sanctions on Tehran. On September 16th, the Obama administration decided to act. The Stuxnet computer virus attacked the Natanz enrichment plant.
The year 2011 commenced on a negative note. The January 21st and 22nd meeting in Istanbul between the P5+1 group and the Islamic Republic of Iran ended without any real results, because the latter laid down two unacceptable conditions. First, Tehran demanded that the P5+1 group recognize its right to enrich uranium. Second, that sanctions must be lifted unconditionally. On May 8th, the Bushehr nuclear power plant started operations and, according to Russia’s Atomstroyexport, it successfully achieved a sustained chain reaction. On the same day, Tehran announced that it intends to triple the rate of 20% enriched uranium production, utilizing more advanced centrifuge designs. In addition, it declared that production will be shifted to the Fordow plant. On July 12, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief sent a letter to the chief negotiator of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saeed Jalili, proposing “meaningful discussions on concrete confidence building steps” to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear “ambitions.” On November 8th, the IAEA published a report underlying the concerns of the organization about Tehran’s nefarious intentions. To wit, on the last day of the year, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to empower the federal government to sanction foreign banks doing business with the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The year 2012 began with a sour note for Tehran. The European Union decided in early January to ban all member states from importing Iranian oil, beginning on July 1, 2012. Moreover, the decision also barred member countries from providing the legal protection and indemnity insurance for tankers carrying Iranian oil. The intervening months between March and August were spent on arduous negotiations between the P5+1 group and Tehran with barely any meaningful progress. In August, the IAEA highlighted the futility of diplomacy with Tehran. On the 30th of this month, it was reported that Tehran produced more 20% enriched uranium than was needed to fuel its research reactor. The IAEA upped the ante on November 16th, by stating that Tehran was busy installing more centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow.
The year 2013 was consumed by slowly progressing negotiations between the P5+1 group and the Islamic Republic of Iran at a variety of locations.
On January 9, and January 10, 2014, the member states of the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran met a third time in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, agreed upon on December 30-31, 2013, in the same place. As a result, the parties agreed that the implementation will begin on January 20th. Simultaneously, the IAEA certified that Tehran in compliance with the provisions of the Joint Plan of Action. Accordingly, the United States and the European Union waived the specific sanctions listed in the November 24, 2013, deal and also released a schedule of payments for Tehran to receive the oil money that various states withhold.
Subsequent meeting mainly in Vienna, Austria, between February and July 2014, involved negotiations concerning a comprehensive nuclear agreement. The rest of the year was consumed with more negotiations. In January 2015, negotiations continued in Geneva. In February, additional negotiations took place in Vienna.
Ominously enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opined in his speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress that any Iran deal “would all but guarantee that Iran gets (nuclear) weapons, lots of them.” In the same vein, Senator Tom Cotton of Kansas and forty five of his colleagues signed an open letter to the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They warned, as it turned out prophetically, their counterparts that any agreement reached without Congress’s approval could be revised by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”
During the month of March, more negotiations took place in Lausanne, Switzerland. Finally, on April 2, 2015, the parties announced that they reached an agreement on the general framework of a comprehensive deal.
Again, the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution that required the president to submit any agreement to Congress for a vote. This resolution was approved by the full Senate on May 7, 2015, by a vote of 98-1.
On July 14, 2015, the member states of the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran signed the nuclear deal, officially named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria. Commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal or simply Iran Deal, it mainly dealt with enrichment-related activities. Tehran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium was reduced by 97%, from 10,000.00 kg to 300.00 kg. This reduction had to be maintained for fifteen years. For the same period, Tehran was ordered to limit its enrichment of uranium to 3.67%. Yet, after fifteen years, all physical limits on enrichment will be removed. Moreover, for ten years Tehran must put two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage, with enrichment capacity being limited to the Natanz plant. There, the centrifuges must be the type IR-1. The IR-2M centrifuges must be stored in Natanz and monitored by the IAEA. Finally, Tehran shall not build any new uranium-enrichment facilities for the next fifteen years.
On the other hand, Tehran was allowed to continue its research and development work on enrichment, but only in Natanz. The Fordow facility was barred from enriching uranium for fifteen years.
To monitor the implementation of the JCPOA, a comprehensive and multilayered inspection regime was set up. However, prior to January 16, 2016, several exemptions were granted to Tehran that weakened from the get go the severity of the enrichment provisions.
Sanctions in the form of “snap back” provisions were also included in the JCPOA. Specifically, the deal established a “dispute resolution” process. Accordingly, a Joint Commission was created to monitor implementation. If the Joint Commission cannot resolve the dispute, the UN National Security Council had to be notified. Finally, future reinstatement of the sanctions allowed Tehran to leave the JCPOA altogether.
After fifteen years, Tehran will be free to do whatever it wants.
Criticism of the JCPOA both within Iran and in the rest of the world was instantaneous. Benjamin Netanyahu called the Iran nuclear deal a “historic mistake.” Addressing President Barack Obama he stated: “In the coming decade, the deal will reward Iran, the terrorist regime in Tehran, with hundreds of billions of dollars. This cash bonanza will fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in the region and its efforts to destroy Israel, which is ongoing.” In the United States, criticism centered on ignoring Tehran’s ballistic missile program and the lack of provisions regarding the regime’s support for terrorist groups and organizations across the region. The $150 billion plus money transfer from the Obama administration
to Tehran in cash only strengthened opposition to the deal.
On October 13, 2015, the Iranian Parliament approved the deal. The next day, the Guardian Council ratified the JCPOA. Two days later, the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran formally adopted the JCPOA.
On October 21st, the United States raised Iran’s ballistic missile test as a possible violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 at a meeting of the Security Council.
On November 21st, Tehran tested another medium-range ballistic missile in clear violation of Resolution 1929.
On January 16, 2016, the IAEA verified that Tehran met its nuclear related responsibilities. On February 26th, the IAEA published its first quarterly report on Tehran’s post-implementation day nuclear activities. The report noted that Tehran met its general obligations with some minor deviations. However, missile launches continued unabated.
More ominously for the JCPOA, then Republican candidate Donald Trump stated at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference on March 21, 2016, that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” After having been elected president on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump again labeled the JCPOA as the worst deal ever negotiated and pledged its renegotiation.
On January 28, 2017, Tehran test fired a medium-range ballistic missile, in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. On March 23rd, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, introduces the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, targeting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support of global terrorism. In spite of Democrat opposition, the full Senate passed the Act 98-2. On July 25th, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3364, the Countering Adversarial Nations Through Sanctions Act, which was designed to impose new sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia.
As the years have gone by, the JCPOA has turned out to be a great hoax. Its main objective to prevent Tehran from achieving military nuclearization within ten or even fifteen years could not have been accomplished. The reason for this was and is obvious. Tehran was building and operating many secret enrichment plants that were not included in the JCPOA, which only listed Natanz and Fordow. In this manner, Tehran has operated two nuclear programs: one for the gullible international community and a secret one that has continued to develop military nuclear capability unabated. For this reason, the IAEA quarterly statements concerning Tehran’s compliance with the limitations of the JCPOA were technically correct, but in reality absolutely meaningless. Clearly, President Obama and his administration intentionally fooled themselves, lied to the American people, and misled the entire international community.
Adding insult to injury, the JCPOA has never been a mutually ratified international treaty. The Obama administration did not even submit it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. According to U.S. as well as international law, the JCPOA has remained a nonbinding agreement among the signatory states.
Thus, President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, based on what he termed as “Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program” was absolutely justified. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, maintaining the fiction of the JCPOA merely would have resulted in certain nuclearization of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The recent elimination of Qassem Soleimani, the resulting threats by Tehran to withdraw from the JCPOA, and the invocation of the dispute resolution process by Great Britain, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany were the last nails in the coffin of this fake and, therefore, useless agreement.
Legally, the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is much more significant. Based on this Treaty, Tehran is subject to all the limitations on its enrichment activities. Accordingly, Tehran cannot exceed enriching uranium to more than 5% U-235. Any violation of this limit will automatically trigger the intervention of the IAEA and the UN Security Council. Should Tehran repudiate the NPT, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 must be activated.
In this case, Tehran’s production of weapons-grade uranium must be considered as a “threat to international peace and security” pursuant to Chapter VII of the UN Charter that calls for necessary actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Throughout 2017, 2018, and 2019, Tehran’s noncompliance with its obligations under numerous UN resolutions, in particular Resolution 2216 respecting the prohibition of “direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer” of short-range ballistic missiles and other equipment to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, has become legendary. In addition, Tehran has continued to flaunt the JCPOA restrictions on the number and type of centrifuges that it was allowed to operate under the agreement. On September 7, 2019, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that technicians introduced UF6 to cascades of 20 IR-4 and 20 IR-6 centrifuges, clearly exceeding the number of machines permitted in a cascade under the research and development terms of the JCPOA.
On September 16, 2019, cruise missiles and drones attacked a Saudi Arabian Oil Company (ARAMCO) facility in Abqaiq, eastern Saudi Arabia. The investigation launched after the strikes determined that the missiles and the drones were fired from Iranian territory. The rest of the year 2019, was filled with threats and lies by AyatollahKhamenei, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarifagainst the United States and President Trump personally.
Most recently, on January 15, 2020, PresidentRouhani made the announcement that his country now enriching uranium at a higher level than before. To wit, Ayatollah Khamenei, the real leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, just followed up with another provocative sermon on January 17, 2020. The so-called Supreme Leader praised the retaliatory strike against the United States and described all Americans as “clowns” who cannot be trusted. Reacting to the Iran-wide protests against the regime and him personally he mocked President Trump’s sympathy declaration for the Iranian people calling it a “poisoned dagger” into the back of the entire nation.
Without a doubt, the Mullahcracy in Tehran has been constituted from its inception as a theocratic dictatorship that uncompromisingly has been committed to foment permanent instability across the globe, especially in the greater Middle East and South-East Asia. Internally, the regime has established a ruthless and cruel oppression against its opponents and anybody else deemed to challenge and thus jeopardize the religious and cultural uniformity of the country. Internationally, the Mullahcracy has become the source of permanent instability in the greater Middle East and beyond. The timeline of recent events has demonstrated the increasing aggression of Tehran, which has been connected with the regime’s internal predicaments. The most recent attacks against American military installations and the shooting down of the Ukrainian civilian airplane have shown the increasing desperation of the Mullahs.
The more than forty years of Mullahcracy has demonstrated that the regime has been incapable of reforming itself. On the contrary. Even according to official Iranian statistics, in the year 2018 alone, more than 100,000 Iranians committed suicide, and many more were killed or executed. Tragically, 75% of the suicide victims were between the ages of fifteen and thirty four. These numbers show that the younger generation that comprises the majority of the population reject the religious, ideological, and political foundations of the theocratic regime. Clearly, the regime is increasingly incapable of suppressing the opposition by only applying ruthless terror. Since the fraudulent elections of 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran has experienced six major nationwide uprisings. Now, the Iranians’ patience broke irreversibly. By discrediting itself in the eyes of the world, the bloody and corrupt Mullahcracy signed its own death warrant. With the exception of a minority that benefits from the all-pervasive corruption of the regime, nobody trusts and supports the Islamic Republic. Presently, even the resignation of the Ayatollah Khamenei will not pacify the Iranian people any more, because the reason for the rot of the regime is he himself.
More disappointingly, the Mullahs have shown total resistance of any moderation both domestically as well as internationally. Now, when the regime is bankrupt both ideologically and economically, the Ayatollah’s and his minions’ diminishing rule will surely be more ruthless at home and increasingly aggressive abroad. Under these circumstances, diplomacy definitely will not work. The only solution is to remove by any means this cancerous tumor from the international body politics. Nothing but total regime change will bring a permanently satisfactory solution for the Iranian nation and the rest of the world.
Column: And scores a victory against terrorism
The successful operation against Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, is a stunning blow to international terrorism and a reassertion of American might. It will also test President Trump’s Iran strategy. It is now Trump, not Ayatollah Khamenei, who has ascended a rung on the ladder of escalation by killing the military architect of Iran’s Shiite empire. For years, Iran has set the rules. It was Iran that picked the time and place of confrontation. No more.
Reciprocity has been the key to understanding Donald Trump. Whether you are a media figure or a mullah, a prime minister or a pope, he will be good to you if you are good to him. Say something mean, though, or work against his interests, and he will respond in force. It won’t be pretty. It won’t be polite. There will be fallout. But you may think twice before crossing him again.
That has been the case with Iran. President Trump has conditioned his policies on Iranian behavior. When Iran spread its malign influence, Trump acted to check it. When Iran struck, Trump hit back: never disproportionately, never definitively. He left open the possibility of negotiations. He doesn’t want to have the Greater Middle East—whether Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, or Afghanistan—dominate his presidency the way it dominated those of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. America no longer needs Middle Eastern oil. Best keep the region on the back burner. Watch it so it doesn’t boil over. Do not overcommit resources to this underdeveloped, war-torn, sectarian land.
The result was reciprocal antagonism. In 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by his predecessor. He began jacking up sanctions. The Iranian economy turned to shambles. This “maximum pressure” campaign of economic warfare deprived the Iranian war machine of revenue and drove a wedge between the Iranian public and the Iranian government. Trump offered the opportunity to negotiate a new agreement. Iran refused.
And began to lash out. Last June, Iran’s fingerprints were all over two oil tankers that exploded in the Persian Gulf. Trump tightened the screws. Iran downed a U.S. drone. Trump called off a military strike at the last minute and responded indirectly, with more sanctions, cyber attacks, and additional troop deployments to the region. Last September a drone fleet launched by Iranian proxies in Yemen devastated the Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. Trump responded as he had to previous incidents: nonviolently.
Iran slowly brought the region to a boil. First it hit boats, then drones, then the key infrastructure of a critical ally. On December 27 it went further. Members of the Kataib Hezbollah militia launched rockets at a U.S. installation near Kirkuk, Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers were wounded. An American contractor was killed.
Destroying physical objects merited economic sanctions and cyber intrusions. Ending lives required a lethal response. It arrived on December 29 when F-15s pounded five Kataib Hezbollah facilities across Iraq and Syria. At least 25 militiamen were killed. Then, when Kataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias organized a mob to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, setting fire to the grounds, America made a show of force and threatened severe reprisals. The angry crowd melted away.
The risk to the U.S. embassy—and the possibility of another Benghazi—must have angered Trump. “The game has changed,” Secretary of Defense Esper said hours before the assassination of Soleimani at Baghdad airport. Indeed, it has. The decades-long gray-zone conflict between Iran and the United States manifested itself in subterfuge, terrorism, technological combat, financial chicanery, and proxy forces. Throughout it all, the two sides confronted each other directly only once: in the second half of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That is about to change.
Deterrence, says Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, is credibly holding at risk something your adversary holds dear. If the reports out of Iraq are true, President Trump has put at risk the entirety of the Iranian imperial enterprise even as his maximum pressure campaign strangles the Iranian economy and fosters domestic unrest. That will get the ayatollah’s attention. And now the United States must prepare for his answer.
The bombs over Baghdad? That was Trump calling Khamenei’s bluff. The game has changed. But it isn’t over.