President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on a strategy of dealing with the most challenging policy issues by building consensus at home and building coalitions abroad, but his stated aim to embrace the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as long as Tehran also returns to compliance is causing well-justified apprehension.
Mr. Biden’s intention to eliminate the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions risks removing the incentive for Iran to negotiate course corrections to the flawed 2015 deal’s greatest shortcomings, including its soon-to-expire “sunset clauses” on nuclear development and its failure to address Tehran’s’s ballistic missile program and support for terror groups.
Shortly after Mr. Biden’s victory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a marker, insisting that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement.” Demonstrating its capability and willingness to deal with what it considers an existential threat, Israel reportedly was behind the lethal strike on Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Fakhrizadeh was a brigadier general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 2019, the Trump administration officially designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, one which “actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.”
Israel has demonstrated the capacity to neutralize threats by conducting sophisticated operations with surgical precision. Israeli operatives have reportedly targeted Iranian scientists tied to the nuclear programs, seized a cache of Iranian nuclear weapons records in 2018, pulled off the still-mysterious sabotage in July at Iran’s largest nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, and knocked off senior al Qaeda leader Abu Mohammad al Masri as he drove through a Tehran suburb where he had been given sanctuary.
Iran’s leaders would be less motivated to return to the 2015 deal if the incoming Biden administration is unable to restrain Israel from future attacks on Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure and its scientists. Mr. Netanyahu’s government therefore might have eliminated not only Fakhrizadeh’s SUV but also any chance for Mr. Biden to make the same bad nuclear deal twice over. One would hope the Biden national security team would see Israel’s pressure on Iran as valuable leverage for negotiating a better deal.
Iran is a multifarious threat to the region and beyond. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, Iran allowed al Qaeda operatives to find shelter and to transit its territory. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran directed its ally Syria to provide al Qaeda with another safe haven, enabling attacks on U.S. troops.
Iran also deliberately benefited from al Qaeda’s attacks on defenseless Shia Muslim civilians, driving them into the arms of Iran-allied proxy militias in Iraq who are now a major power player in Baghdad.
IRGC Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whom the Pentagon targeted in a lethal drone strike in January, oversaw Iran’s penetration of Iraqi government ministries and parliament. Soleimani’s export of failed governance, endemic corruption and ethno-sectarian violence created the petri dish in Iraq and Syria from which Islamic State grew with impunity.
Iran also provides significant material support to its other regional proxy militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.
Rather than retaliate militarily, which might risk the regime’s own survival, Iran has instead relied on nuclear blackmail. Iran now enriches uranium and stockpiles low-enriched uranium in violation of its commitments. Earlier this month, citing President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018, Iran’s parliament approved a bill to suspend U.N. inspections and resume enriching uranium to 20%.
In 2009, President Obama announced the existence of the Fordow underground enrichment facility, which Iran had concealed from U.N. inspectors. Any future negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program — developed with assistance from Pakistan, China and Russia — should adhere to a principle of mistrust and verify.
China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, were original signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal. Notably absent from the talks that produced the agreement were any of the Arab countries in the region, including recent signatories to the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which most directly would feel the menace of a nuclear-capable Iran.
Mr. Biden would do well to heed the warnings of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who opposed the original Obama administration deal and its relaxation of harsh economic sanctions because of “the very real risk that Iran will not moderate” its policies.
The Biden foreign policy team has some hard thinking to do on the road ahead. It’s imperative that the new team take into account the landscape-altering developments of the past five years since the deeply flawed deal was first signed.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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