In case you dismiss most or all statements during campaigns by office-seekers and their aides as complete baloney, you should take a look at some transcripts recently released by the Hudson Institute of interviews last year with then Joe Biden foreign policy advisers Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan – who have gone on to become President Biden’s Secretary of State and national security adviser, respectively.
The trouble is that these transcripts make plain as day, among other points, that the Biden view of handling Iran and its nuclear weapons ambitions makes little sense from a standpoint of simple common sense.
The Sullivan transcript – recorded last May – is by far the more thoughtful and serious of the two, but mainly in terms of revealing the fundamental confusion of the Biden outlook.
The central questions surrounding the Iran nuclear issue stem from the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed during the Obama years by the United States, Tehran, China, Germany, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, which obliged Iran to accept limits on its nuclear research program in return for relief from longstanding international economic sanctions. The Obama administration insisted that even though the Iran nuclear limits would end in 2025, the agreement valuably put off the day when Tehran could produce a bomb on very short notice, and therefore in theory until then defused the greatest potential Iranian threat to American and Middle Eastern security; that a calmer atmosphere could help diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran’s other belligerent behavior; and that the deal represented the best outcome Washington could achieve jointly with other great powers – which were always capable of frustrating unilateral U.S. Iran strategies they considered too confrontational.
Critics (like, eventually, me) countered that the deal left open too many loopholes that could enable Iran to keep making substantial progress toward nuclear weapons capability; that the sanctions relief would give Iran the economic wherewithal to intensify its efforts to gain hegemony over much of the Middle East and Persian Gulf; and that the United States on its own had ample power to cripple Iran’s economic ability to wage proxy wars and sponsor terrorism. And because he basically agreed with the critics, Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The results have been mixed. Unilateral U.S. sanctions have indeed ravaged Iran’s economy – and possibly put at least some constraints on its aggression and subversion, along with other dangerous weapons programs like its drive to create ever more effective, longer-range ballistic missiles. But this behavior has by no means stopped, and the Trump administration’s belief that the pain would foster regime change has been totally far-fetched so far. Further, to protest these sanctions – which Iran calls a violation of the JCPOA – Tehran has said that its own commitments are now null and void, and has taken a series of steps that JCPOA supporters charge demonstrate the failure of the Trump approach, and that deal opponents say Iran was taking clandestinely anyway – or was bound to.
Like his boss (who of course served as Barack Obama’s Vice President), Sullivan is a JCPOA supporter, and the new President has made clear his determination to return to the deal in the belief that Iran will slow down its nuclear research once again. But Sullivan’s remarks also reinforced the case against the deal by unwittingly acknowledging that the Obama-Biden hopes for the kind of changed Iranian behavior that would bring lasting benefits to the region are thoroughly in vain.
Here’s one of two key passages:
“[T]o me, the real issue with Iran, the real limitation on Iran in the region, has not been the availability of cash [i.e., the effectiveness of sanctions]. It’s been the availability of opportunity. And where opportunities have arisen, they’ve taken them. And that was true in the ’80s. It was true in the ’90s. It was true in the 2000s. It was during the 2010s. It remains true today. And even under massive sanction, the Iranians have gotten more aggressive in the Gulf, have remained just as aggressive in Syria and Lebanon, have increased their activities in respect to the Houthis in Yemen, and all of that while under massive economic sanction from the United States.”
I agree with Sullivan’s observation that Iran is so determined to achieve in the Middle East objectives considered dangerous by a broad bipartisan U.S. consensus that it’s pursued this agenda despite paying a major economic price. But does this kind of Iran sound like a country likely to reform in the slightest by the time the JCPOA runs out? Worse, the failure of sanctions to bring Iran to heel, by no means renders inconsequential the resources they’ve denied the country. It’s all too reasonable to conclude that permitting Iran to do business normally with the rest of the world will simply make an aggressive regime much wealthier, and thus able to act more aggressively. As political scientists would say, the result would be a country whose malign intentions haven’t changed but whose malign capabilities are have greatly increased.
The second key passage:
“[M]y view is, if you can take one of the big threats off the board, the Iranian nuclear program, take it off the board, and then use the tools available at your disposal, none of which were stripped from us by the JCPOA, to go after Iran in the region. And to the extent you want to make diplomacy, the central feature of stopping Iran’s malign activities, get the regional actors at the table with the Iranians and stand behind them with some pressure to try to produce a deescalation, say between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
Here the problem is Sullivan’s apparent belief that, faced with the prospect of being “gone after” by the United States and its other bitterest rivals, Iran will dutifully comply with the JCPOA for the entire length of its duration – which will leave it highly vulnerable to “pressure” to abandon goals that the previous Sullivan passage identified as positively foundational.
It’s far more likely – and I’d call it a virtual certainty – that Iran will do everything possible to prevent this kind of vulnerability/ As a result it can be expected to take every opportunity in the foreseeable future to make the fastest possible progress toward the nuclear weapons threshhold whether the nuclear deal is resumed or not, devoting many of resources made available by sanctions removal to that effort, and continuing even faster (and eventually building a nice sized stockpile) once the JCPOA expires.
Not that there’s no reason for optimism from an American standpoint. For the above scenario makes a U.S. military pullout from the terminally dysfunctional Middle East/Persian Gulf region more appealing than ever. Another reason for optimism for those still worried about Iran despite decisive recent reasons to disengage, like substantial American energy independence: Trump’s oft-voiced (but only partly-at-best fulfilled) desire to exit had clearly prompted Iran’s Sunni Arab and (nuclear armed) Israeli foes to kick into the next gear their own tacit alliance, which seems more than capable of countering Iranian threats.
Unfortunately, even though in his interview, Blinken stated that a Biden administration would seek to deemphasize the region in U.S. grand strategy in order to focus more on East Asia, President Biden seems bent on keeping the U.S.’ armed regional presence impressively sized. Can anyone say “Tar Baby” – again?