The Democratic establishment will soon be back in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and the question is how much they’ve learned in exile. One early test will be Iran, and whether Joe Biden will abandon the strategic gains that President Trump has made in the Middle East in a rush to return to the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal.
The apparent assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist near Tehran on Friday shows that Iran’s nuclear program remains a global security problem. No one took responsibility, but any number of countries have reason to act now in case the Biden Administration returns to a policy of appeasing Iran.
The U.S. left the nuclear accord in May 2018 and embarked on a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. After restoring pre-deal sanctions, the Trump Administration has added new restrictions across the Iranian economy, which is rigged to enrich the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and elites in Tehran. The White House plans to announce more sanctions through Jan. 20.
The sanctions have succeeded in weakening the rogue regime. Today Tehran exports about a quarter of the 2.5 million barrels of oil a day it shipped when the U.S. was still in the deal. This deprives the government of $50 billion in annual revenue. The economy has shrunk, while the Iranian rial has lost 80% of its value against the dollar.
Iran has responded by increasing its violations of the nuclear deal. It now has 12 times the limit of enriched uranium allowed under the accord, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this month. It also is enriching uranium to 4.5% purity, above the 3.67% allowed under the deal but far from the 90% concentration needed for a bomb.
That Iran was able to ramp up its nuclear production so quickly is a reminder of the agreement’s major flaws. The IAEA also said this month that Iran’s explanation was “not credible” after investigators found nuclear material at an undeclared site. “We continue to be extremely concerned by Iran’s actions, which are hollowing out the core non-proliferation benefits of the deal,” the United Kingdom, France and Germany said in a statement responding to the IAEA report.
Yet Mr. Biden has vowed to return to the deal if Tehran begins honoring its commitments. “A Democratic Administration should immediately re-engage nuclear diplomacy with Iran and look to establish something along the lines of the [nuclear deal], but immediately begin the process of negotiating a follow-on agreement,” Mr. Biden’s choice for White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told our colleague Walter Russell Mead this year.
But what kind of agreement? The original nuclear deal makes it easy for Iran to break out as its provisions sunset over the next decade. Meanwhile, it provided cash for Iran to expand its regional influence and terrorism. After signing the 2015 deal, Iran increased its military budget more than 30% between 2016 and 2018, and its proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen benefited.
The Trump sanctions forced Iran to cut back on that support, and the killing of terror chief Qasem Soleimani was a loud deterrent. To abandon sanctions again in return for more Iranian promises would be diplomatic and strategic malpractice. At a minimum the Biden team can use the sanctions as leverage to close the loopholes in the 2015 accord.
That should include no sunset, unlimited inspections of suspect sites, limits on ballistic missiles, and restraints on Iran’s regional imperialism. If Iran refuses, then we’ll know its goal continues to be regional domination rather than to become a normal country.
The Middle East has also changed for the better since Democrats were last in charge. Israel and the Sunni Arab states are normalizing relations after decades of conflict, and one reason is their shared worry about Iran. The Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine is no longer the dominant issue.
President Trump gave both sides assurance that the U.S. is on their side, in contrast to Barack Obama’s loud disdain and his strategic embrace of Iran. If Mr. Biden rushes head-long back into the nuclear deal, he runs the risk of blowing up that regional progress.
Why would Mr. Biden want to throw that away? We understand the emotional attachment that Mr. Sullivan and other Biden advisers have for the 2015 nuclear deal. But time and Iranian behavior have exposed that deal as even worse than it looked at the time. Mr. Biden’s foreign-policy team should be thankful for the stronger hand Mr. Trump is leaving them.
Wonder Land: At the risk of arousing the dark side, 2020’s election results are reason for conservative optimism. Images: Congressional Quarterly via ZUMA Press/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly[object Object]