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.