Weapons-laden Iranian warships are speeding across the Atlantic Ocean and may be destined for Venezuelan ports.
In the Red Sea, Iran-backed Houthi forces battling the internationally recognized government this week reportedly planted sea mines in a direct threat to U.S. Navy ships that sail in the strategically vital waterway.
Last month, Iranian financing helped militants from Palestinian Hamas — which both the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group — launch an unprecedented rocket war on Israel, while Iran-linked militias in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly targeted U.S. personnel in the Middle East and Iranian speed boats routinely harass American vessels across the region.
But none of that seems to be affecting President Biden’s quest to strike a new deal with Iran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, in exchange for the lifting of harsh economic sanctions that were reimposed by former President Trump.
Top Biden administration diplomats — led by special Iran envoy Robert Malley — are in their sixth round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, with a fresh motivation to act quickly stemming from Friday’s Iranian elections and the growing expectation that an anti-American hard-liner is in line to win.
Other countries involved in the talks — including major European allies, Russia and China — have spoken of narrowing differences in bringing the U.S. back into the deal repudiated by Mr. Trump in 2018. State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said Tuesday that “meaningful progress” has been made toward a new deal, but that “outstanding issues” remain as the two sides race toward the home stretch.
If and when a new nuclear agreement among the U.S., Iran and other world powers is finalized, it looks increasingly unlikely that it would address any of Tehran‘s behavior outside of its nuclear weapons program. While the Biden administration in its early weeks took a tough rhetorical line and signaled that Iran must first make concessions before any real talks could begin, critics say that it’s now become apparent the president and his top deputies are desperate to bank a major diplomatic breakthrough now and save Iran’s worrisome activities on other fronts for another day.
“No matter what Iran does, the policy is to try to ignore it,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at leading Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
“Iranian proxies killed an American in Iraq — no response,” he noted. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] says Iran is hiding nuclear sites and materials — no response. The Iranian navy sends ships to Venezuela — no response. And on and on the list goes.”
“It’s not just bad Iran policy, it’s bad national security policy, period,” said Mr. Goldberg, who served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council under Mr. Trump. “Everyone is watching this show of American weakness: China, Russia, North Korea. And they’re learning all the wrong lessons about President Biden’s tolerance level for misconduct and extortion … What kind of insane foreign policy is that?”
Republican criticism of the Biden team’s willingness to engage with Iran is nothing new.
Many of the same GOP figures and hawkish foreign policy analysts in Washington lambasted President Obama’s decision to engage with Iran, which ultimately led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. That deal freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program. It was negotiated by many of the same key players now in the Biden team’s diplomatic team, including Mr. Malley.
Even though UN inspectors said Iran was largely abiding by the nuclear curbs in the deal, Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018, arguing in part that the accord did nothing to Iran‘s support for terrorist groups and other misdeeds in the Middle East.
In the years since Iran‘s behavior has grown even more brazen and destabilizing. Beyond challenging U.S. interests and allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Tehran has used drones and military speed boats to directly confront the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Pentagon and intelligence officials also are keeping a close eye on two Iranian warships believed to be transporting weapons or illegal fuel to the regime of socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
U.S. officials say Iran also remains the world’s undisputed leader in direct financial support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, while U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials have long warned that Tehran has offered safe haven to key al Qaeda figures.
‘Back in the box’
At the same time, citing Mr. Trump’s breach of the deal as justification, Iran has disregarded the limits on uranium enrichment established by the JCPOA, potentially putting Tehran just months away from obtaining weapons-grade material.
But the Biden administration argues that’s exactly why an updated JCPOA — or another deal like it — is so important. Much like the arguments made by Mr. Obama years ago, they contend that Iran‘s nuclear program represents such a serious, immediate threat that containing it is a first-priority security imperative for the entire world.
They say that Mr. Trump’s hard line and pressure campaign — including the killing of a top Iranian general in an airstrike in January 2020 — did nothing to curb Iran’s bad behavior and a new approach is needed.
“If this goes on a lot longer, if they continue to gallop ahead … they’re going to have knowledge that’s going to be very hard to reverse,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday, “which I think puts some urgency in seeing if we can put the nuclear problem back in the box that the agreement had put it in that, unfortunately, Iran is now out of as a result of us pulling out of the agreement.”
Mr. Biden and other Group of Seven leaders over the weekend expressed a similar sentiment.
“We are committed to ensuring that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain said in a joint statement. “A restored and fully implemented [JCPOA] could also pave the way to further address regional and security concerns.”
The U.S. and its allies in Europe also speak out consistently against Iran‘s support for terrorism, and it’s not certain whether that issue will be entirely absent from any potential nuclear deal. For its part, the Biden administration has taken some direct action against Iranian proxy groups, including airstrikes in late February against the Syrian base of the militant organization Kait’ib Hezbollah, which previously targeted U.S. personnel stationed in neighboring Iraq.
Meanwhile, Friday’s presidential election in Iran has only put extra pressure on the administration. With hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi widely expected to win, Iran‘s position on nuclear negotiations may change and its appetite to deal with the U.S. could diminish.
“For the Iranians, the challenge is they’ve got the elections. The question is: Can the Biden administration make concessions fast enough to beat the Iranians to their election punch, understanding that after the election things may change?” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration‘s assessment is that they may be harder pressed to make a deal with the new guys.”
Iranian officials have said the nuclear negotiations are proceeding no matter who wins the presidential vote and that the next president would respect any deal agreed to in Geneva.
“The nuclear file is a national dossier that is being advanced with consensus in the Islamic Republic, is unrelated to domestic developments, and is being pursued by the governing organizations, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiee told reporters in Tehran last week.
Ms. Pletka and other critics argue that the administration‘s willingness to let virtually all other issues slide is driving the U.S. negotiating strategy.
“One of the things the administration has signaled to the Iranians is, … ‘We are never going to co-mingle anything else you do with the nuclear accords,’” she said. “’We don’t care what you do. … We are not going to let that interfere with our desperate desire to get a nuclear deal.’”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans also have taken aim at the administration and its handling of Iran policy. Top GOP lawmakers, for example, have demanded that Congress review — and approve or deny — any nuclear deal reached with Tehran.