If President-elect Joe Biden rejoins the Iran nuclear deal, he will likely suspend some sanctions on Tehran while keeping in place sanctions on non-nuclear activity. Biden should beware: Tehran has no problem with this arrangement, which will allow it to fund its militia proxies through oil revenue.
Like former President Barack Obama, President-elect Joe Biden seems to perceive of the nuclear deal with Iran as the beginning of a relationship. Tehran, however, sees the deal as the end.
The architects of the deal under both Obama and Biden are the same, including Biden’s picks for National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The two men seem to believe that there is always an opportunity for a breakthrough “grand bargain” that will transform Iran from foe to friend. For such a bargain to work, America has to be patient, and give the process time.
Democrats see the ongoing process of improving relations with Tehran as being interrupted by President Donald Trump and his hawks. Therefore, come January 20, Biden will resume the process from where it broke off: America will rollback its sanctions on Iran, which will simultaneously dial back its level and stock of enriched uranium to where they were on May 2018, before Trump withdrew from the deal.
Obama, however, never suspended all US sanctions on Iran. On the day he paused sanctions on Iran’s financial, energy and shipping sectors, his Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew said this: “We will continue to target sanctionable activities, including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile development.”
Neither did Obama suspend sanctions on Iran by legislation. Instead, he issued waivers by executive order. Congress demanded that it be in the loop, and hence Obama — and after him Trump — informed Congress of their waiver renewals, every six months, until Trump declared that May 2018 would be the last time he renewed such waivers. In November 2018, suspension of US sanctions on Iran expired, and the Iranian economy started its free fall.
The Iranian regime wanted to save face, but without breaking the deal, so when it increased level and stock of enriched uranium, it did so without violating the levels allowed. Iran’s strategy was to wait out Trump until Sullivan and other Democrats came back to the White House and restored the agreement that favored Tehran so much.
To rejoin the deal, Biden and his transitional team exaggerated the nuclear danger from Iran to justify urgently bringing Tehran back into the deal. Biden also presented himself as tough, stating that restoring the nuclear deal did not mean that Washington approved of Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism or development of missiles. But even Obama never approved of Iranian militias or missiles, and never removed US sanctions connected to them.
According to team Biden, once US nuclear sanctions are suspended and Iran’s program is back under control, America will negotiate with Iran over terrorism and missiles. But says who Tehran wants to talk missiles or militias? In response to Biden’s pledge to negotiating with Iran over non-nuclear issues, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said: “The Americans were trying for months to add the missile issue [to the nuclear talks] and this was rejected … and Mr Biden knows this well.”
In fact, Iran was thrilled with Obama’s deal, which allowed it to legally make billions from its oil exports to fund its missiles and militia programs. The other, non-nuclear, sanctions never bothered Tehran. As long as Iran is concerned, America can keep its non-nuclear sanctions while Tehran continues developing missiles and supporting militias that undermine the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and other Arab countries.
In effect, Iran is using its nuclear program to buy itself immunity against American sanctions that can cripple its oil sector and the revenue that Tehran desperately needs to fund its economy, as well as its missiles and regional militias.
Even better, under the deal, Iran’s freeze of its nuclear program ends in 2031, after which it can further develop its nuclear bomb program with impunity. At that point, the US and the world might demand extending the nuclear deal, but by then, Iran would probably be close to producing a nuclear bomb that would make the regime immune to external threats and uninterested in extending the nuclear deal.
If the Democrats cannot see that this trade takes away US leverage to combat Iran’s troublemaking behavior, both nuclear and non-nuclear, then they either know little about global affairs or are simply biased in favor of Iranian mullahs.
America’s allies will have to think of other ways to counter Iran’s nuclear program, missiles and terrorism. Israel is already doing so, and winning regional friends who have an interest in stopping an increasingly bullish Iran. America under Biden will take a back seat and watch.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is an Iraqi-Lebanese columnist and writer. He is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.