Biden and Iran: Two Questions
from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Biden and Iran: Two Questions

As the Biden administration enters its second month in power, two very large questions about its Iran policy remain unanswered.

The first relates to nuclear negotiations. At the State Department press briefing on February 22, Department Spokesman Ned Price reiterated clearly the administration’s position:

[W]e are prepared to meet with the Iranians in the context of the P5+1 to start to undertake this diplomacy, to start to undertake these talks, to move forward with the proposition that has been on the table for some time now, a proposition that predates this administration when then-candidate Biden made clear the deal of compliance for compliance: If Iran returns to full compliance with the Iran deal, the United States would be prepared to do the same. We would then use the JCPOA as a basis for a longer and stronger agreement and negotiate follow-on agreements to cover other areas of concern, including Iran’s ballistic missile program.

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This position raises a question the Administration has never answered. A return to the JCPOA would mean the lifting of the most significant economic sanctions on Iran. Once they are lifted—for example, sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, and on oil sales—how will the Administration force or induce Iran to negotiate a new agreement that is “longer and stronger,” much less then “negotiate follow-on agreements to cover other areas of concern, including Iran’s ballistic missile program?”  Iran obviously does not want to do so and will agree only under enormous pressure, but the Administration says its goal is to relieve that pressure in return for Iran going back to the JCPOA. The point is simple; the problem is obvious; the Administration’s answer is absent.

The second question relates to Iran’s use of lethal force against Americans in Iraq. Here is what Mr. Price said:

We’ve seen the reports of the rocket fire today. We have – as you heard us say in the aftermath of the tragic attack in Erbil, we are outraged by the recent attacks. And the attack in Erbil, of course, harmed civilians and coalition forces, including an American service member….When it comes to the attack in Erbil, I would just add that we are still determining precise attribution. But we have stated before that we will hold Iran responsible for the actions of its proxies that attack Americans. It is – it – I can add that the rockets fired in recent attacks on the coalition and citizens of Iraq, including this attack I referenced, are Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied.

When it comes to our response, we will respond in a way that’s calculated, within our own timetable, and using a mix of tools at a time and place of our choosing, as you’ve heard me say before. What we will not do is lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran and contributes to their attempts to further destabilize Iraq. 

Iran continues to attack U.S. forces in Iraq, and the Administration to its credit dismisses the excuse that these attacks come from Iraqi Shia militias rather than Iran. Mr. Price correctly stated that “the rockets fired in recent attacks on the coalition and citizens of Iraq, including this attack I referenced, are Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied.” It is also true, as he did not say, that Iran has shown its ability to turn these attacks on and off.

What will the Biden Administration do? If the attacks continue, the law of averages suggests that sooner or later an American will be killed, sharpening the Administration’s dilemma. It cannot let the killing of Americans go unpunished (or in any event, will be harshly criticized for doing so); it apparently does not wish to “lash out,” whatever that means; it does not want to “risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran and contributes to their attempts to further destabilize Iraq;” and presumably it does not want to kill the JCPOA negotiations that are supposed to begin soon, hosted by the EU.

This is worth unpacking. If Iran kills Americans and the President does not retaliate in some effective manner, he will be criticized for weakness—and rightly so. The reference to “lashing out” is, sad to say, a political rather than diplomatic comment by Mr. Price, presumably meant to contrast the sober and responsible Biden Administration with its predecessor. But its predecessor did not lash out; instead it conducted an effective campaign of deterrence. If the reference to “lashing out” is Mr. Price’s comment on the killing of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, he should say so. Then we can have a debate over that killing, and hear from the Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and President Biden about that. But Mr. Price should understand that that was a considered decision involving much planning and had been discussed over many months.

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As to “risking an escalation,” Mr. Price is on dangerous territory indeed. He has a point about destabilizing Iraq; one can well imagine some forms of U.S.-Iran confrontation that might result in the fall of the Kadhimi government or expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq. But it is very dangerous for the United States to appear to fear “escalation.” Mr. Price’s comment will be read around the world. In the Middle East and with regard to Iran, we have clear escalation dominance; Iran has a great deal to lose from escalating a confrontation with the United States. If Iran appears fearless and the Biden Administration by contrast fearful, there will be a price to pay for the United States. Mr. Price’s phrasing gives Iran every incentive to escalate its attacks on Americans in Iraq.

And then there is the JCPOA. Is the Administration holding back from punishing—and thereby deterring—Iran because its real goal is getting the JCPOA talks started fast? If so, it would be falling into exactly the error of the Obama administration: having a JCPOA policy instead of an Iran policy.

It may be unfair to say the new Administration should have answers to these questions so soon, and with so many key posts unfilled. And as to the sanctions question I posed above, there is time. It seems clear that the JCPOA talks will be complex and lengthy. Fortunately the Administration has not lifted any sanctions yet, and I hope it will not do so. But the second question cannot await confirmation hearings in March or April, because Iran is attacking Americans every week and may kill someone in the next attack. Moreover, to take the position that only killing an American is an unacceptable Iranian move is tantamount to saying that endless harassment and smaller attacks are acceptable. This was a problem into which the Trump administration fell.  Mr. Price should be less proud of not “lashing out” and more worried about how to stop Iranian attacks on Americans in Iraq. Those attacks could produce this Administration’s first real crisis.