Joe Biden’s Iran Plan a Cause for Alarm

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about climate change during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., September 14, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Americans should be alarmed by Biden’s approach to the Iranian threat.

Joe Biden has authored an op-ed at CNN about the failures of the Trump administration’s Iran policy and the virtues of what would be his own approach if he takes office in January. It is as shapeless and illogical as his larger foreign-policy doctrine.

Biden begins by blasting Trump and his State Department for failing to stop the United Nations arms embargo from expiring in October. Trump, Biden claims, “could not rally a single one of America’s closest allies” to support the extension of the embargo. What he neglects to mention is that the expiration date on the embargo was set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama administration and described by Biden as “a policy that was working to keep America safe.” That policy was, per Biden, discarded by Trump in favor of one “that has worsened the threat.” So which is it: Did the Obama-Biden Iran policy keep America safe? Or is the best argument against the Trump administration that they have failed to successfully roll back Obama-era policies?

Moreover, while Biden’s critique of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the JCPOA is not totally without basis as a strategic matter, he is wrong to assign the blame for France, Germany, and the United Kingdom’s cowardice to Trump. It is the fault of Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson that they refuse to enforce the Iran nuclear deal by keeping sanctions in place while Iran remains in contravention of it. Still, he chooses to blame America first — for his own political benefit.

The former vice president professes to “have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America’s security interests, to our friends and partners and to its own people.” Yet he fails entirely, in his op-ed ostensibly addressing the Iranian threat, to come even close to describing the full extent of how its regime has targeted U.S. forces in the Middle East, committed grievous human-rights violations against its own people, and funded terrorist organizations and plots around the globe. His failure to reckon fully with the evil of Ayatollah Khamenei seems indicative of not only his less serious estimation of the Iranian threat, but also the fact that he has made his peace with the current regime staying in power over the long term. He makes this belief explicit when he calls “Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’” strategy “a boon to the regime in Iran.” He again avoids explaining how, probably because this claim is untrue by every available metric.

Maximum pressure has effectively choked the Iranian economy. The JCPOA had helped Iran achieve GDP growth rates of 12.5 percent in 2016 and 3.7 percent in 2017. In 2018 — the same year the U.S. exited the deal — Iran’s economy contracted by 5.4 percent. 2019 was even worse, at -7.6 percent. Notably, this economic disaster has led to Iranians flooding into the streets many times over the last two years to protest not only pocketbook issues, but the regime’s restriction of basic freedoms. While Biden may be content to leave the ayatollahs in power, the Iranian people appear to be far less willing. Furthermore, Iran’s regional position has been undermined by the Trump administration’s successful efforts to strengthen Israel’s relationships with Arab nations, including the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

Instead of backing maximum pressure, Biden supports what he calls a “smart way to be tough on Iran.” Ignoring Iran’s flagrant violations of the JCPOA even before the U.S.’s withdrawal, the sunset provisions on the agreement, and Israel’s discovery of documents detailing Iran’s nuclear program, Biden falsely asserts that the JCPOA had “verifiably block[ed] Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.”

Noticeably, Biden avoids using Qasem Soleimani’s name in the piece, opting instead to use vague allusions to the successful U.S. strike that killed an Iranian terrorist and general responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and thousands of people across the Middle East. For example, he says that “when tensions spiked early this year . . . our European allies” did not side with us and “called for ‘all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility.’” This is a mischaracterization of a joint statement issued by the governments of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France that in no way condemns the U.S. for the strike and in fact focuses instead on condemning Iran for its destabilizing behavior and failure to comply with the JCPOA. Biden also warns that “Trump has repeatedly brought America to the brink” of a new war without citing any evidence that he has done so. He relies only upon the memory of the media’s unfounded fearmongering in the wake of Soleimani’s death to make people believe that America has been close to a shooting war with Iran.

Biden’s own plan consists of three tenets. The first is to “make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He does not expand upon this commitment. The second is to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.” Biden says that he would rejoin the JCPOA if Iran “returns to strict compliance with it.” Since Iran was never in such strict compliance, the reader is left to wonder exactly what a Biden administration’s criteria for rejoining would look like. Biden also says that he would “work to help our partners reduce tensions and help end regional conflicts, including the disastrous war in Yemen.” Apparently, he would favor the Iranians’ preferred resolution to that war. His campaign website calls it a “Saudi-led” conflict despite Iran’s support of radical Houthi rebels. Strikingly, this stands in contradiction with his third tenet, which is “to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region.” If not in Yemen, where does Biden plan on pushing back against such activities? He doesn’t say, excepting some vacuous language about supporting Israel.

Americans should be alarmed by Biden’s approach to the Iranian threat. His failure to acknowledge the Trump administration’s successes reveals his own resignation to Ayatollah Khamenei’s permanence. And his own nebulous plan for confronting Khamenei should inspire little confidence. Like his broader foreign-policy agenda, Biden’s plan relies too much on platitudes and too little on a clear-eyed assessment of the Middle East and a moral certainty in the U.S.’s efforts to oppose Iranian aggression.

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