Will the American election finally kill the zombie Iran deal?

Tony Badran
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In the lead-up to the American midterm elections, the Biden administration’s messaging on Iran had maintained that the effort to revive the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was the last thing on its mind. More than once last month, US envoy for Iran Robert Malley repeated the same line about how the talks with Tehran were “not on the agenda.” Instead, Malley and other spokespeople claimed that the administration’s focus was on the protests in Iran. Now that the election is over, the administration’s true intentions should become clear.

This is not to say that elections don’t matter. They do matter – just not very much, and certainly not in this context. The Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, has shown disdain for Congress regarding foreign policy, and on Iran most of all.

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In the House of Representatives, Republicans appear set to take back control, albeit with a much smaller majority than anticipated. A Republican House would hold Congressional investigations, in addition to hearings that would be pro forma in both chambers, culminating in what would inevitably be a narrow, mostly party-line vote against the JCPOA in the House.

That House action will be ignored by the White House and dismissed by the mainstream American press as nothing more than performative partisanship – and they’ll have a point. There are few paths for Republican Congressional leaders to muster serious action, especially given the persistent unwillingness of Democrats to break with Biden and Obama.

In the Senate, there remains an outside chance that the Republicans could eke out a one-seat majority. But just as likely, or more likely, the current 50-50 split could hold, giving the Democrats the advantage. If the Democrats win in Arizona, Nevada and the run-off election in Georgia, they could even extend their current majority by a seat. Continued Democratic control of the Senate will mean effective smooth sailing in Congress for the administration’s Iran agenda.

In the end, therefore, the question of whether Biden restores the Iran Deal, as he has long promised to do, remains a function of whether Iran says yes.

Election-year messaging aside, the Biden team remains fully committed to both the JCPOA and to the overall Iran policy envisioned by former president Obama, who remains the guiding force behind the Democratic Party’s attitude toward the Middle East. With the midterm elections already receding in the rear-view mirror, the administration’s commitment to clinch the deal will likely shift into overdrive during the last two years of Biden’s first term, in a bid to cement what Obama and his acolytes would like to depict as the ex-President’s Mount Rushmore achievement.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani leaves after a meeting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, Austria, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

The Biden administration has not been held back from reentering the deal because Congress would say no. They've been held back because the Iranians thus far have refused to say yes. For the first two years of Biden’s presidency, Iranian obstinacy frustrated a visibly desperate administration that so far has wasted a startling amount of high-level bandwidth on negotiations and blandishments that have required top-level approval but have produced no movement on the Iranian side. The administration’s desperation has been fueled by the fear that the more the process has dragged out, the more variables are likely to pop up, complicating the administration’s public posture, if not its actual policy.

Indeed, two such variables have emerged in recent months: the relentless protests in Iran, and Iranian military involvement in Ukraine, which has lately involved providing Vladimir Putin with lots of drones. Both these developments have complicated the administration's messaging on issues that are now central to the Democratic identity politics agenda, and to the party’s domestic agenda more broadly.

The fact that the protests in Iran were sparked by women who were beaten to death for not covering their hair has put the administration in a particularly uncomfortable spot with Democratic voters. The administration’s dogged pursuit of a deal with the oppressive mullahs, amplified by Malley’s cold, near-sociopathic embrace of the Iranian regime, necessitated a calculated adjustment in messaging. Enter Barack Obama.

The former president laid down the new messaging for the administration—first in a statement on the protests, and then in an interview. Together, Obama’s statements offered a public relations roadmap to the Biden team, which the administration has religiously followed. Instead of changing policy, even while paying lip service to solidarity with the protesters, Obama doubled down – using lawyerly language to describe why he turned his back on the 2009 protest movement in Iran, while re-affirming the soundness of the JCPOA.

The Obama-led shift in messaging, in other words, is hardly a shift in policy. Rather, it is a device to deflect criticism of the existing policy, which the administration appears to have no intention of changing. Obama used this same tactic for years in managing his unlovable position on Syria, which he understood to be an Iranian “equity.” Obama never blanched at the price of his deal with Iran – a price that included half a million dead Syrians.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Obama and the Biden team seem willing to tolerate Iran violently repressing women, despite the administration’s explicit commitment to embedding gender concerns at every level of its foreign policy, or to openly arming Vladimir Putin, who is otherwise depicted as a war criminal and the arch-enemy of the entire Western world. Indeed, even after having been forced to take action and tweak its messaging because of these developments, the US administration has laid the predicate for a quick return to the deal as soon as Iran shows some flexibility.

The other wild card in the JCPOA, aside from continuing Iranian recalcitrance, is Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in Israel. Those who staffed the Obama administration and now staff the Biden administration have always feared a scenario in which Netanyahu, acting alone or in concert with other regional powers who dislike and fear US plans for regional re-alignment as much as Israel does, seizes the occasion of perceived weakness in both Tehran and Washington to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, consigning the JCPOA to the dustbin. If such a strike were ever to happen, arguably now would seem to offer as good a moment as any in the past decade — a moment not guaranteed to come again.

Yet as the past decade has shown, talk is cheap when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, while action has thus far proven too expensive for regional players to bear on their own. Indeed, the infamous boasting by Obama officials that Netanyahu was a “chickenshit” was precisely in the context of deterring and outmaneuvering him regarding action against Iran. The US administration will again look to fend off and sabotage this scenario, and work to keep Israel off balance with the Palestinians and with its “regional integration” scheme. It will keep an especially close eye on any openings Netanyahu makes to the Saudis, whom the administration will continue to pressure to finance the regional integration agenda, especially in Lebanon. In the end, hoping that the US administration will abruptly discard Obama’s trademark policy – which was never based on a realist appraisal of the Iranian regime or the way that power works in the region -- seems like wishful thinking. Regional actors who want change will therefore have to pay for it themselves.

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