During the 2020 campaign and after taking office, President Biden has expressed his willingness to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Iran, offering to join European partners to begin talks with the Iranians for the first time in four years with a view to rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Even before the inauguration, John Kerry and possibly others, ignoring the Logan Act, let Iran know that if they just waited until President Trump was out of office things would be different. Presumably, they promised rapid lifting of the sanctions on Iran and a rapid return to the Obama era deal.
Iran rejected has now an offer by the European Union and the U.S. to hold direct talks, insisting that the U.S. lift all its unilateral sanctions. The early efforts of the Biden administration, working through the Swiss government as well as the E.U. and U.N. to get these negotiations under way have already run into stumbling blocks, as Tehran has demanded that the sanctions re-imposed by the Trump administration be lifted before any talks can proceed. Some see this as political brinkmanship, raising questions over Mr. Biden’s initial plans to salvage the 2015 JCPOA since Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of this agreement in 2018.
While Mr. Biden might have campaigned on renewed diplomacy with Iran, his administration is finding that re-entering a nuclear deal won’t be quick or easy and is now facing the practical implications of Iran’s regional misbehavior. Iran’s leaders have always understood that their real power rested with its proxy groups across the region, predicated on the historical fact that for decades Iran was able to extend its influence well beyond their borders with impunity.
Iran counted on the Obama administration’s desperation for a nuclear deal, which they got. By some accounts, they got to do much of what they wanted as if they were a nuclear-armed state, without the benefit of actually having a bomb. On top of this, they got Mr. Obama to secretly fly in planeloads of cash to fund their support to regional terrorist operations and ignore their ballistic missile developments threating a host of regional states.
A little more than a month into existence, the Biden team has doubtless learned an important lesson — the Middle East has greatly transformed from what it was before Mr. Trump became president. Turkey has emerged as a key power, and one increasingly at odds with Iran in northern Iraq. Several Gulf states who joined the Abraham Accords have normalized their relations, while Saudi Arabis has become a key target for Iranian military operations, even if conducted by proxy forces.
With the destruction of the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria, Iraq has seen a new slate of grievances aimed at its central government with renewed attacks by hostile groups and Iranian-backed proxies that have struck both Iraqi and U.S. forces. Containing Iran, in practical terms. means undermining the militias, and it seldom matters where along the Soleimani “land bridge” they are located, as Israelis have known all too well.
For years Iran assumed that it was diplomatically insulated from the military and covert operations of their proxy forces and groups, and have been largely correct. The Obama administration ignored this, and actions by the Trump administration reversed the policy somewhat, although Iran continued to expand their regional activities during the Trump years where possible, despite crippling sanctions. One can only wonder what Iran might have achieved if the sanctions had been lifted, as they are now demanding.
While Mr. Biden wants to revive the Iran nuclear deal in some form, at least his administration has signaled that they will not do so at any cost. If the recent U.S. strike on Iranian proxies on the Syrian border is more than just a one-off event, it will represent a welcome about-face from the errors of 2015.
Here Mr. Biden’s critics are wrong, in that this is not as much as an expansion of war into Syria, but a tailored strike on Iranian assets on the border as a clear signal to Iran — not to Syria. Of note here is a lack of complaints by Syria, who for their part would like to see the Iranian proxies gone as well.
Also of critical importance is coordination with key allies, such as Israel, in dealing with Iran. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in his Senate confirmation hearing that the U.S. wants to consult its friends in the Middle East ahead of a renewal of talks. Both Mr. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, now the national security adviser, are cognizant of the problems in approaching Iran, as well as the need to deal with Israel in the process — something that the Obama administration ignored to its peril in the earlier negotiations.
Ultimately, however, the signs are clear that the Biden team working on the Iran problem is not anxious to remove the current sanctions or rush into any new deal that is simply a renewal of the old one. As this process moves forward, it will certainly be in concert with Israel, considering the current technical realities and best intelligence both nations have on the Iranian program. It may take a bit more time, but this is important that policy not be driven by a political agenda or artificial time frame.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel and the Search for Peace.”
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