A post-Afghanistan policy for Iran
Sep 23, 2021 | Andrea Stricker, Behnam ben Taleblu
It’s always hard to admit when you’re wrong – this is true for the Biden Administration’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan as well as its flawed approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Starting in April, Washington participated in six rounds of indirect negotiations to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to no avail. The election of ultra-hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as President in Teheran means either that the clerical regime is focused on exploiting Washington’s propensity for appeasement, or that it is utterly disinterested in diplomacy.
“This process cannot go on indefinitely,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July, a view apparently shared by America’s European allies. The Secretary, at least on this point, is correct.
As Iran prods for more concessions, the Biden Administration should signal that there are costs for continuing a path of intransigence and escalation. Doing so will require a renewed US pressure track against Teheran: robust economic penalties backed by a credible military deterrent.
Shifting course to a better Iran policy is more critical than ever in the wake of Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, as Teheran and other adversaries will exploit the US power vacuum.
The Administration has already made numerous direct and indirect concessions to Iran. These include dealing separately with Iran’s nuclear and regional threats, removing Yemeni rebels that Iran materially supports from the US Foreign Terrorist Organisations list, failing to promptly respond to Iran-backed escalation in Iraq, not enforcing oil penalties as China imports record-high volumes of Iranian crude, not holding Iran accountable at the United Nations nuclear watchdog for safeguards infractions, and issuing waivers to permit Iran to pay debts to Japanese and South Korean companies using Teheran’s frozen funds. Iran has pocketed every concession without a hint of reciprocity or moderation.
Recently, the regime stepped up provocations, attempting to hijack a vessel in the Persian Gulf and attacking an Israeli-owned tanker with drones, killing two Europeans.
To stem such behaviour and drive a better bargain, Washington must course-correct.
First, US officials must disabuse themselves of the notion that they need to regain Iran’s “trust.” As former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord in 2017, “the deal is based on lack of trust, no part of this deal is built on confidence.” Mistrust of America and the West are deep-seated in Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. The outsized factor getting Teheran to negotiate in the past was the prospect of sanctions relief, not faith in America.
Second, the United States should amend the “go-it-alone approach” of the Trump Administration and multilateralise the pressure campaign it inherited. Despite being unable to curtail the reach of restored American sanctions on Iran after Trump’s exit from the JCPOA in 2018, Europe’s commitment to the nuclear deal meant that, in practice, allies like France, Germany and the UK were politically on the side of adversaries like Iran, Russia and China, waiting out the Trump policies.
To get Europe involved, Washington must inform France, Germany, and the UK it is jettisoning the notion of reviving the expiring JCPOA. Sustained US diplomacy should instead unite the allies behind a coordinated campaign to counter Iran’s escalatory measures: acts of maritime harassment, cyberattacks, human rights abuses, the nuclear and missile programs, support for terrorism, and fomenting of regional instability.
On the nuclear front, Biden must rebuild the transatlantic consensus on stopping Iran’s atomic program that existed before the JCPOA, which resulted in several rounds of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions. In so doing, the Administration can build on past attempts to create supplementary terms for an improved accord as a baseline from which to draft the contours of a better deal.
One venue in which to present a united diplomatic front is the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is investigating Teheran’s safeguards breaches and attempting to restore lapsed monitoring over Iran’s nuclear program.
As of May, Iran had amassed enough enriched uranium to produce three nuclear weapons, and reduced the time required to make weapons-grade uranium to around two months. In April 2021, Iran also began producing 60% enriched uranium, a short step from 90%, the ideal purity for nuclear weapons. In February, Teheran also began making uranium metal, a material used in the core of nuclear weapons, and significantly reduced IAEA monitoring.
Washington and its partners should spearhead a new IAEA resolution censuring Iran. [Ed. Note: The IAEA Board of Governors was scheduled to hold a session the week beginning Sept. 13, after this AIR edition went to print]. If this approach does not bear fruit, America and Europe must elevate Iran’s nuclear file back to the UN Security Council. Even if Russia and China refuse to censure Iran, the US and its allies can invoke the UN snapback mechanism to restore all prior sanctions resolutions against the Islamic Republic.
Third, if Washington is going to get serious about countering Iran, it needs to have a regional policy that understands Teheran’s centre of gravity is its web of partners and proxies, which the regime terms the “Axis of Resistance”. Rolling back the gains of this network through sanctions, interdictions, denying terrain, political pressure, and even military strikes will be key to winning on the battlefields that Teheran has invested in so heavily.
There are countless other areas that require greater American attention, such as the regime’s hostage diplomacy, assassination of dissidents, and foreign kidnapping plots. America must also not miss the opportunity to support the Iranian population when it takes to the streets.
Despite more than six months of Washington turning the other cheek, Teheran remains defiant and in violation of its nuclear obligations, and continues to arm and equip terror and proxy groups. Teheran is unlikely to ditch its penchant for escalation and extortion so long as it yields results. It’s time the Administration admits that its Iran policy is not working – but it can still be salvaged.