Biden Plays Softball With Iran

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In his interview with CBS‘s Nora O’Donnell on Sunday, President Joe Biden gave the impression that he is playing hardball with Iran. But Iran is openly breaching the limitations on its nuclear activities that it agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal it concluded with the Obama administration and its European partners.

Hours before Biden’s interview with CBS, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Islamic Republic will only scale back its illicit nuclear activities after Biden abrogates U.S. economic sanctions against the regime.

O’Donnell asked Biden if he would comply with Khamenei’s condition. Biden responded with a curt “no,” and then nodded after O’Donnell followed up by asking if “they have to end uranium enrichment first?”

Back in the studio, CBS’s Margret Brennan concluded, “It appears there is a standoff.”

But drama aside, there’s no standoff.

On Monday, Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki made an effort to walk back Biden’s remarks. “If we were announcing a major policy change, we would do it in a different way than a slight head nod,” she said.

Even before Biden’s tough talk and head nod, Bloomberg News reported that Biden and his team are looking to have things both ways. They want to help Iran economically despite the fact that its intensive uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities make clear that Iran’s nuclear efforts are entirely military-related. And they want to help Iran without having to defend their policy in a bruising fight with Republicans over suspending sanctions. According to the report, the administration is considering providing Iran with U.S.-backed International Monetary Fund loans and other international assistance, which Biden and his advisors could characterize as COVID-19 relief.

Searching for a way to give money to Tehran isn’t the only way that Biden and his advisors are communicating that they are playing softball, not hardball, with the ayatollahs.

Last week, the administration facilitated Iran’s Houthi proxy’s continued control over a large area of Yemen, from which it conducts missile and drone strikes against U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

One of the many strategic weaknesses of the 2015 nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was that it ignored Iran’s non-nuclear aggression—its proxy wars across Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon, its sponsorship of terror in the Middle East and worldwide, and its ballistic missile programs.

While then-President Barack Obama, then-Vice President Biden and their advisors promoted the JCPOA as a non-proliferation agreement, its effect was not to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. With its sunset clauses, the JCPOA guaranteed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons within 10 to 13 years and facilitated Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.

Obama admitted this was the case in an August 2015 interview with NPR. Upon the expiration of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, Obama said that its “breakout times [to independent military nuclear capability] would have shrunk almost down to zero.”

By suspending UN Security Council sanctions on Iran in exchange for the regime’s agreement to suspend some of its nuclear work for a limited period, the JCPOA enriched Iran to the tune of $150 billion. As then-Secretary of State John Kerry candidly acknowledged, those funds provided the regime with the financial means to advance its efforts to become the regional hegemon through its proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

To sum up then, the JCPOA provided Iran with an open road to a nuclear arsenal. And the sanctions relief Iran received provided the regime with the economic wherewithal to expand its non-nuclear aggression via terrorism, proxy wars and ballistic missile development throughout the region—and, indeed, throughout the world.

In a 2017 interview with Reuters, a senior Iranian government source said that in January 2017, then-Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani held a meeting with Houthi leaders in Tehran. “At this meeting, [the Iranians] agreed to increase the amount of help [to the Houthis], through training, arms and financial support. Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on, and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East,” the source bragged.

Since 2014, the Houthis have controlled around 30 percent of Yemen, including the areas where 80 percent of the population lives. Like Iran, the Houthis are committed to the destruction of the U.S. and Israel. Since 2014, they have used their border with Saudi Arabia to attack Saudi oil platforms, cities and ships with Iranian-supplied missiles and drones.

Trump began reinstating U.S. economic sanctions on Iran in 2018. By 2019, the sanctions had reportedly compelled Iran to significantly scale back its support for its various proxies, including the Houthis.

In late November, the Houthis attacked Jeddah with a long-range missile that a Houthi spokesman said was initially developed to attack Israel. Two months later, in one of its final acts, the Trump administration formally designated the Houthis a foreign terror group.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken said at his first press conference that the first Trump administration policy the new administration intended to reverse was the Houthis’ terrorist designation and the Trump administration’s related overall position on Yemen. And in Biden’s speech at the State Department last week, he announced that the U.S. was indeed reversing course. In a departure from the policies of both the Trump and Obama administrations, Biden said his administration was ending U.S. support for Saudi military operations in Yemen and canceling “relevant arms sales” to the Saudis.

The following day, the State Department announced that the administration was revoking the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terror group, thus ending the previous administration’s sanctions on the Iranian proxy. This happened just after that the Houthis opened up a new volley of drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia.

By siding with the Houthis against Saudi Arabia, Biden helped Iran assert its control of Yemen through the Houthis and at the expense of Saudi Arabia. And he did this without receiving anything in return from Iran. Not only has Iran not scaled back any of its prohibited nuclear activities, but it is expected to block UN nuclear inspectors from conducting intrusive inspections of its nuclear sites beginning February 21. Just last weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that UN inspectors found evidence of illicit nuclear activities at a site Iran had barred the inspectors from entering for seven months.

Biden’s moves to empower Iran and its Houthi proxy against the U.S.’s Arab Gulf allies will be very costly to the region and to the U.S. They make regional war more likely. They diminish U.S. regional influence, and they open the door for China and Russia to replace the U.S. as the region’s superpowers.

Biden’s policy raises the prospect of war because he is emboldening Iran to expand its aggression, thus simultaneously convincing spurned U.S. allies that they have no choice but to take action against Iran and its nuclear program before it is truly too late.

Biden is diminishing U.S. influence by telling Iran it has no reason to fear the U.S., which is rewarding the regime even as it sprints toward the nuclear finish line and wages proxy wars against American allies. And he is also diminishing U.S. influence by kicking American allies to the curb.

This then brings us to Russia and China. Both powers saw the opportunity to expand their presence in the region at the U.S.’s expense during the Obama administration. Beginning in 2014, as Obama and his team realigned U.S. foreign policy toward Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Russia began negotiating major arms sales to Egypt for the first time since the 1970s. Since then, Egypt has purchased Russian SU-35 fighter jets, MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrums, Ka-52 attack helicopters and the S-300 air defense missile systems.

Saudi Arabia purchased Russia’s far more advanced S-400 air defense missile system and Chinese ballistic missiles and drones. The United Arab Emirates has also purchased Chinese drones.

Although Trump worked hard to rebuild U.S. credibility with the Sunni Gulf states and Egypt, congressional hostility toward Saudi Arabia and U.S. political instability more generally made it impossible for Trump and his advisors to convince these allies to reverse course. Now Biden is making clear that they were right not to keep all their eggs in America’s basket.

Biden’s tough talk on Iran last weekend was a thin veneer covering a policy of profound weakness toward Iran. The policy is doubly bizarre since, thanks in large part to U.S. economic sanctions, Iran is on the brink of collapse. But in their keenness to undo everything that Trump did, the Biden administration is throwing away leverage and giving Khamenei the upper hand. In the process, the administration is increasing the chance of war, losing America’s Arab allies and empowering China and Russia at America’s expense.

Originally published at Newsweek.

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