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Whatever Happened to Biden’s Iran Policy?

March 26, 2024 | Danielle Pletka

Mere months into his new administration, U.S. President Joe Biden told a Rose Garden press conference that he was “pleased that Iran has continued to agree to engage in discussions, in direct discussions with us and with our partners on how we move forward and what is needed to allow us to move back” into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. It was his clearest statement, as president, about the Iran policy he was committed to pursue.

Almost three years later, those discussions have long since fallen apart, replaced with…nothing. Indeed, a survey of congressional Democrats and Republicans, administration officials, foreign diplomats, and Iran observers has confirmed the obvious: The Biden administration now has no discernable policy on Iran and its nuclear program. Iran merited only a passing mention in the president’s State of the Union address. And not having a policy couldn’t come at a worse time.

THE INSTITUTE FOR Science and International Security (ISIS) regularly produces assessments on the state of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program. It now assesses the breakout time—the period necessary for Iran to assemble a nuclear weapon—at zero. Effectively, that means Iran has enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb within days, and enough to assemble six weapons within 30 days. While not confirming the ISIS figures, at the March 4 Board of Governors meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Director-General Rafael Grossi made clear the international body has very little sense of what’s happening in Iran, explaining that “the agency has lost continuity of knowledge about the production and inventory of centrifuges, rotors and bellows, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate.”

The previous IAEA board meeting, in November 2023, raised a host of concerns that remain unresolved, including Iran’s failure to share information required by international law about the presence of uranium particles at two different sites, Varamin and Turquzabad. In addition, Tehran failed to provide clarifications about IAEA questions raised even earlier—answers Iran had promised to provide in a March 2023 agreement. Rather, the regime chose in September 2023 to expel previously allowed nuclear inspectors in a process called de-designation. While the regime has characterized the decision as retaliation against European countries for sanctions (the inspectors in most reports specified that only German and French inspectors were de-designated), according to a European official, a Russian expert with specialized familiarity with advanced centrifuges was also ousted.

Notwithstanding the advances in Iran’s nuclear weapons work, and its decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent (in violation not only of its obligations under the JCPOA, but also under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT), there has been no formal statement from the Biden administration that its previous policy is dead. Former Pentagon official Colin Kahl told Congress in testimony in February 2023 that there was “still the view that if you could resolve this issue diplomatically and put constraints back on their nuclear program, it is better than the other options. But right now, the JCPOA is on ice.” Privately, Biden was even more forward, telling a woman who attended a rally in November 2022 that the Iran nuclear deal was “dead.” When Iran special envoy Robert Malley was suspended from his position for still-unclear security violations, it appeared that all hopes for rejuvenating the Iran nuclear deal were dashed.

With the cratering of Biden’s wish for a new or better Iran deal, most expected a resumption of the sanctions regime that had been in place before Biden’s election. But that didn’t happen. Instead, most of the steps taken when Biden took office in 2021—like the lifting of a terrorism designation for Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis (reimposed in early 2024) and relaxed sanctions on violators of U.S. oil sanctions on Iran—remained in place.

A bipartisan letter sent earlier this year by U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, Maggie Hassan, and over a dozen other senators called for the renewed enforcement of oil sanctions:

Iran is now exporting on average more than 1.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, two-thirds of which ends up in the People’s Republic of China. From February 2021 to October 2023, the regime has taken in at least $88 billion from these illicit oil exports. Iran is deriving significant economic benefits from pervasive sanctions evasion, with Iran’s economy growing by four percent annually and net foreign currency reserves also increasing by 45 percent from 2021 to 2023.

Though the Biden Treasury Department has continued to impose sanctions against Iran for a variety of human rights, missile, and proliferation transgressions, for the most part oil and LNG sanctions, particularly against China and Chinese-linked purchasers, have been thin and ineffective. Few can point to a decisive reason Team Biden is allowing Tehran to rake in the cash, and the National Security Council has denied that the White House is giving Iran a pass. “The United States has maintained strict compliance with all Iran related sanctions and has not lifted any sanctions, any allegations to the contrary are false,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council told the Wall Street Journal.

Nonetheless, robust Iranian oil exports to China continue without sanction. Perhaps the Biden administration still has hope for some sort of agreement to restrain the nuclear program; perhaps fears of an oil price spike in an election year are driving Treasury’s reticence. Or perhaps the Biden administration now worries that its inattention to the problem has given Iran escalation dominance—meaning that it now has to treat Iran as a de facto nuclear power.

Similarly, the European powers that had partnered with the United States in cementing the JCPOA in 2015 and who condemned then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 suddenly appear uninterested in Iran’s nuclear weapons progress. In the wake of the troubling November meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, the so-called E3 and the United States stood together to condemn Iran’s decision to increase its production of uranium enrichment to 60 percent. But, reported Reuters at the time, “the allies made no mention of any consequences Iran could face for the production hike.”

A similar joint statement in February following a new IAEA report also failed to offer any action plan, and perhaps even more strangely, did not threaten a censure of Iran for its violations of the NPT. Censure is the strongest action the IAEA can take, absent a referral to the U.N. Security Council.

Stranger still is the Biden administration’s unwillingness to work with allies to trigger so-called snapback sanctions. There were several critical moments when this would have made sense, as it does today. In October 2023, the U.N. resolution that prohibited transfers to or from Iran of drones and missiles lapsed under the terms of the JCPOA. And while both the United States and Iran have ceased abiding by the deal, the operative U.N. resolution that governed the JCPOA has not. Iran, according to the Biden administration, has long been in violation of restrictions on its missile and drone programs. A snapback—part of the appeal of the original Iran deal—permits any one of the remaining parties to the deal to trigger a process at the U.N. Security Council to force the reimposition of all U.N. sanctions, including on conventional weapons and missiles, without permitting a veto.

The beauty of a snapback is that, in addition to the missile sanctions and conventional weapons prohibitions that have already expired, such a step would also bring back restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Bizarrely, however, neither France, Germany, the U.K., nor the United States—all exercised over Iran’s support for Russia in Ukraine, among other things—have evinced more than rhetorical interest in the snapback. Rather, all insisted they would impose their own sanctions on Iranian missile transfers. Of course, European sanctions apply only to persons subject to European jurisdiction and do not punish parties from third countries involved in Iranian drone and missile transfers. In short, only the United States is actually seeking to deter involvement in such transfers by persons in third countries, with little effect.

THERE HAVE BEEN growing indications that Iran’s ultra-hard-line turn represents a threat to the United States. The collapse of dialogue with Iran in 2022 did not take place in a vacuum. Even before the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 cast in sharp relief Iran’s malign role in the Middle East, a number of events made clear that the Tehran regime’s inclination to treat with the West was declining. The first was the aggressive crackdown in the wake of the murder of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, which elicited a sharp condemnation by the Biden administration. Further dialogue between Washington and Tehran in the wake of new sanctions over Amini was restricted to efforts to secure the release of five longtime American hostages held in Iranian prison. (They were eventually allowed to leave Iran following the Biden administration’s release of $6 billion in Iranian escrowed funds.)

As Iran’s domestic posture hardened, so, too, has its foreign policy aligned ever more explicitly with Russia and China. Over the last two years, Iran has stepped up support for Russia’s war on Ukraine and delivered “more than 2,000 drones” to aid Moscow’s invasion. The Tehran regime has also supported the construction of a drone factory in Russia. Then there’s Iran’s role in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, including its financing, arming, and training of its proxy Hamas; Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi attacks on shipping (armed with increasingly potent missiles and drones with ranges up to 1,500 miles); Iranian financing, arming, and training, as well as command and control, for Lebanese Hezbollah; and attacks on U.S. military and commercial targets by numerous Iranian proxies, including in the Red Sea, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan—this last resulting in the murder of three U.S. service members.

All of this happened in the context, pre-Oct. 7, of a strong sense in the region that a U.S. pivot away from the Middle East was finally happening. Straws in the wind like a U.S. failure to respond to an Iranian-backed drone attack on civilians in the United Arab Emirates, or a devastating attack on Saudi oil refineries, spurred a series of rapprochements between Gulf nations and Iran. Qatar never broke with Tehran, but both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had downgraded or severed diplomatic ties. As is often the case, Dubai led the way, but Riyadh was quick to follow with the reopening of its embassy in Tehran.

Post-Oct. 7, there is even more at stake for the Biden administration. While the impetus behind a pivot away from the region remains—Russia and China represent clear and present dangers—the reality is that Hamas’s war on Israel and the resulting destruction of Gaza will require U.S. engagement. There are already demands for the renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with an eventual pathway toward a two-state solution. In balancing U.S. interests and priorities, the White House and its allies in Europe will face two options: engage in a region ever more dominated by Iran and its proxies, or cede Iranian dominance, replete with a lethal nuclear weapons program. The choice should be obvious.