The Biden administration’s desperate quest for an Iran Deal projects weakness
—New York Times, August 10, 2022
—New York Times, August 12, 2022
—New York Times, August 16, 2022
This is where you’d put a confused face emoji.
Why? Because one of the above headlines is unlike the others. The first two stories reveal the nature of the Iranian regime—a gang of criminal theocrats that since 1979 has spread chaos and murder throughout the world. The third headline reveals the gullibility of Western politicians and diplomats who, despite never-ending reminders of the Islamic Republic’s aims and capacities, persist in trying to appease it.
Negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal have been taking place in Vienna since April 2021. They have gone nowhere. Yet the Biden administration insists on playing a starring role in this diplomatic farce. Nothing that happens in the outside world penetrates the bubble where the diplomats reside.
• Iran refused to speak to the United States directly. We obliged. The talks are indirect—a sign of American weakness.
• Ali Khamenei ensured that his potential successor, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric sanctioned by the United States, was “elected” president last summer. Not only did we continue negotiations. We are also now debating whether to provide Raisi an entry visa so he can spout regime propaganda at the U.N. General Assembly next month.
• America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, one year old this week, seriously undermined our credibility and our security. It weakened our influence in the Greater Middle East. Yet Biden didn’t change his foreign policy. He doubled down on his Iran gambit.
• Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February was a hinge of history—a moment when, we have been told, “everything” changed. Everything but the Iran negotiations. Russia, despite its outlaw status on the international stage, continues to serve as Iran’s intermediary. Maybe we should take the hint?
All this happened in the months before the Bolton assassination plot and the attack on Rushdie. And those violations of U.S. sovereignty and rule of law are related to Iranian malfeasance. The Justice Department charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for attempting to hire a hit man who would target the former U.S. national security adviser. Rushdie’s assailant may have been in contact with the IRGC, as well, and was unquestionably inspired by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Khomenei, who called for the British-American novelist’s death in 1989.
And what, you ask, does Iran continue to demand of the United States as a condition for reentry into the nuclear deal? In a piece for CNBC headlined, “A renewed Iran nuclear deal appears closer than ever. Here are the final sticking points,” Natasha Turak writes, “Iran wants the Biden administration to remove its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its [i.e., America’s] designated terrorist list, which so far Washington seems unwilling to do.”
Biden would be committing political seppuku if he removes the IRGC from the terror list. Even he can see the danger there. He’d be handing the beleaguered Republicans an issue in the final months before the midterms. It has the potential to taint media coverage of his supposed diplomatic triumph.
The IRGC “sticking point” is politically troubling. Another sticking point is impossible. Iran wants the United States to guarantee that future presidents will abide by the deal. However, the only constitutional way to do this would be to submit the nuclear agreement to the Senate for treaty confirmation. Of course, Biden can’t do that, because the treaty would fail. Leaving Biden at an impasse.
One he refuses to acknowledge. Perhaps the Biden team is now so full of themselves after a string of legislative victories at home that they are ready to make additional concessions to get what they mistakenly believe will be a victory abroad. The press will love this narrative, of Biden going from strength to strength and win to win, no matter the costs to U.S. security and stability in the Persian Gulf and Shiite Crescent.
Another scenario is that, while neither Iran nor America agrees to this latest proposal, the talks continue intermittently because they serve each party’s goals. Iran is using this time to build its nuclear infrastructure. America doesn’t want to face the hard choices that follow from a recognition that diplomacy has failed.
That is why all peace processes or arms control negotiations continue despite the evidence that they achieve nothing. The process itself becomes an end for the West. Meanwhile, the process serves as cover for the West’s enemies.
“We have a miserable, bipartisan track record of not responding to Iranian aggression and terrorism,” Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies observed the other day. Biden has an opportunity to correct the record by demonstrating American strength in response to Iranian outrages. It’s an opportunity he won’t take.
Iran and al Qaeda have quietly forged a strategic terror alliance
The man likely to become al Qaeda’s next leader has spent decades using Iran as a base of operations and maintains deep ties to the hardline regime, signaling that two of the globe’s leading terrorist forces could exponentially expand relations in the near future.
Saif al-Adel, al Qaeda’s number two leader and longtime head of its security arm, fled to Iran in the early 2000s, along with other senior leaders, following the September 11 attacks. From there, he helped relay orders from the just-killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and orchestrate terrorist operations that killed dozens of people, including Americans, according to former U.S. officials and information on the Iran-al Qaeda axis published by a watchdog group.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) protected al-Adel during his time in the country, and the regime permitted him to plan deadly terror attacks, including a May 2003 operation in Saudi Arabia that killed eight Americans. “Adel’s suspected presence in Iran has raised further questions regarding Iranian influence on al Qaeda if Adel were to be named leader,” according to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), an advocacy group that closely tracks Iran’s regional terror operations.
These ties have only deepened since President Joe Biden’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan that left the Taliban in power and the country in shambles. Senior leaders in Iran’s Quds Force, an elite IRGC branch, remain in close contact with al Qaeda leaders, “and since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some al Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven,” according to a European intelligence analysis. The Iran-al Qaeda alliance, former U.S. officials told the Free Beacon, has quietly grown for many years, making the prospect of a new nuclear deal with Iran—which will provide Tehran with billions in cash—beneficial for its allies in al Qaeda.
“When the U.S. government enriches Iranian terrorists through sanctions relief or a lack of enforcement, that money ultimately goes back to support al Qaeda,” Gabriel Noronha, a senior Iran adviser for the State Department during the Trump administration, told the Free Beacon. “We know that Saif al-Adel has not just been living in Iran for most of the past 20 years—he’s been hosted there by the regime along with other al Qaeda operatives. Since 2015, the Iranian regime has allowed al Qaeda to establish an operational headquarters in the country, providing them with documents, passports, funding, and logistical support like safe houses.”
Al-Adel and his network of al Qaeda confidants used their time in Iran to build close “operational coordination” with Tehran’s security forces, including the IRGC. While Iran was once at odds with al Qaeda due to religious differences, that has not been the case for many years now, according to Noronha and other former U.S. officials familiar with these ties.
“These are not totally separate and distinct terrorist groups or even rivals anymore—they are part of an anti-American and anti-Western alliance,” Noronha said.
From his perch in Iran during the mid-2000s, al-Adel “was allowed by Iran to travel to Pakistan and open more contacts with other al Qaeda leaders,” according to UANI’s research, which is based on intelligence and open-source reporting. Iran’s decision to permit al-Adel and other al Qaeda operatives to freely move in the region “opens up speculation that al-Adel could establish a ‘satellite office’ for the group in Iran,” according to a 2011 AP report.
Nathan Sales, former U.S. ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Free Beacon that “contrary to expectations and contrary to conventional wisdom, the Iranian regime and al Qaeda have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship for many years.”
Iran, Sales noted, recently hosted senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives, “which is exactly what we should expect from the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism.”
The depth of these ties was first unveiled by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in January 2021, when he disclosed publicly that a U.S. operation killed one of al Qaeda’s top leaders on the streets of Tehran in 2020.
“Al Qaeda has a new home base: the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said in a speech at the time, marking one of the first public disclosures about Iran’s deepening relationship with the terror group.
Hans-Jakob Schindler, a senior director at the Counter Extremism Project, which tracks jihadi groups, noted that al-Adel “has become very high value” since al-Zawahiri was killed, “and the Iranians usually take advantage of such situations.”
Al-Adel’s “existence in Iran and his freedom to act while in Iran will solely depend on what the Iranian regime think his value and usefulness for their aims is,” Schindler said.
The president's credibility is shot
Before leaving for the Middle East, President Biden sat down for an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News. Anchor Yonit Levi asked the president if he would use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. “As a last resort, yes,” Biden said.
I’d like to think that Biden is sincere. I hope that he understands the dangers a nuclear Iran would pose to the Greater Middle East, to Europe, and indeed to the world. A nuclear Iran would launch a cycle of proliferation and escalation in the region. Iran’s nuclear missiles would be in range not only of America’s Persian Gulf allies but also of NATO. Iran would intensify its malign activities, from terrorism to proxy war to hostage-taking, knowing that the bomb gives it cover. A nuclear Iran means a world more dangerous, more violent, more flammable than the world is even today.
Which is why Biden is the latest American president to suggest that the use of force remains an option. An air and naval campaign to destroy the nuclear sites known to Western intelligence and to degrade the Islamic Republic’s capacity to retaliate is the best means of delaying and potentially foreclosing the possibility of an Iranian bomb. The objective of such an operation wouldn’t be regime change. The goal would be prevention. Israel and the Gulf States would support us. And Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping would pay attention. They would be put on notice: The American president means what he says.
Does he? In the spring of 2021, President Biden was asked about the record numbers of illegal immigrants who began crossing the southern border after he reversed his predecessor’s asylum policies. Biden dismissed the question. The migrant surge was “seasonal,” he said. It happens “every single solitary year.” Not like this, it doesn’t. The season ended long ago. The migration has continued for a year and a half. Last month saw the largest number of illegal crossings on record. Biden’s flippant answer was grossly mistaken, to say the least. He doesn’t seem to care. In fact, if he’s successful in ending Title 42 protocols allowing for the swift repatriation of illegal migrants, he will continue to make the problem worse.
In the summer of 2021, President Biden gave a speech on the inflation that was starting to appear in the economic data. “Our experts believe and the data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen are—were expected and expected to be temporary,” he said. Like the “seasonal” migration on the southern border, the “temporary” inflation continues. Last month’s number was higher than expectations. Real earnings fell 4 percent. The president’s economic policies have resulted in a decline in Americans’ standard of living. Nothing he says on the issue has changed the public’s dismal view of his job performance.
It was only a year ago, remember, that President Biden was asked if a Taliban conquest of Afghanistan was inevitable. “No,” he answered. A month later, the holy warriors rolled into Kabul and America was forced into a panicked and dangerous rescue operation that left 13 U.S. servicemen killed and Afghanistan abandoned. Throughout this disaster, Biden spoke and acted as if everything was going according to plan, as if everything was under control. By Labor Day 2021, the public had severed its connection with a president whom it had placed in office simply because it was tired of the incumbent’s excesses. Biden might as well spend the rest of this year in Rehoboth Beach. He operates without public attention and without public support. His words carry no meaning. They don’t land, they don’t register, they don’t signify.
Will Biden use force to stop Iran? Maybe. That’s what he told Channel 12. Yet Biden acknowledged the possibility of a military strike only when Israeli media forced him to. Note the following: In his Washington Post op-ed explaining the reasons for his Middle East trip, Biden wrote that “my administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do.” No discussion of how long he will wait for Iran to get “ready to return” to the deal. No mention of what he will do if Iran refuses to comply.
And Iran isn’t complying. Indirect talks between the United States and Iran, mediated by Europe and by, incredibly, Russia, have lasted for over a year. They’ve gone nowhere. Worse than nowhere: Iran’s nuclear “breakout” time is now zero. Last month Iran turned off the cameras that the International Atomic Energy Agency uses to monitor its disclosed nuclear facilities. The cameras remain dark. The Iran crisis is here, but President Biden acts as if it hasn’t yet arrived. The zombie negotiations in Vienna—with endless talks despite longstanding impasses over the status of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and whether Biden’s successor will have the power to scuttle the arrangement (which of course he will)—have become an end in themselves. Nor is there reason to expect the administration to cut them off so long as Iran doesn’t make too much trouble. Especially when Biden would like to bring Iranian oil back on the market.
So much of Biden’s rhetoric feels performative: He recycles the standard lines not to state policy or rally public opinion but simply to move on to the next question. Where he is most sincere, it seems to me, is his reluctance to deploy our forces abroad. Think of his Afghanistan withdrawal, and his self-deterrence vis-à-vis Russia in Ukraine. “I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there,” he said in the final line of his Washington Post op-ed. “It’s my aim to keep it that way.”
That’s the real Biden—the Biden who believes that he’s been right on every foreign policy issue of the last half century, when he almost always has been wrong—the Biden whose credibility is shot. Should Israel and America’s Middle East partners take him seriously? Look at his actions rather than his words. And if he fails to act, others should.
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.