top of page


Updated: Jan 28, 2022

It’s startling to review just how much leverage the president has squandered practically overnight.

January 20, 2022 11:00 PM

President Joe Biden came into office pledging to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal quickly and then negotiate a follow-on agreement to address the deal’s many flaws. A year later, he’s laying the groundwork for an even worse deal that would pour billions of dollars into Iran’s terror infrastructure and leave the regime on the threshold of attaining nuclear weapons. Try as his administration might to pass the blame, one man alone is responsible for this catastrophic policy failure: Joe Biden.

It’s startling to review just how much leverage the president has squandered practically overnight.

At the end of 2020, Tehran had just $4 billion in accessible foreign exchange reserves, with a balance-of-payments crisis looming. Iranians blamed the mullahs for the nation's economic woes, protesting in waves throughout the country. The head of the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog agency was investigating Iran for concealing undeclared nuclear sites, materials, and activities — with a referral to the U.N. Security Council for noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty possibly just months away. The Islamic Republic was also still reeling from the loss of its terror mastermind, Qassem Soleimani, and the father of its nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

From Biden’s first day in office, Iran began testing the new president. Days before Biden’s inauguration, Iran started producing 20% enriched uranium, a major escalation from the low-enriched uranium it produced in response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. In the weeks that followed, Tehran-directed terror groups in Iraq attacked U.S. forces and interests, leaving a U.S. contractor dead. Soon, reports emerged of Iranian oil exports to China skyrocketing. Iranian leaders needed to gauge Biden’s willingness to enforce sanctions.

With Iran refusing to cooperate with the U.N.’s investigation into its clandestine nuclear work and the regime’s overt enrichment expanding, Biden had a perfect opening to push back and set down some lines to contain Iranian mischief. Instead, the president pressed U.S. allies to pull back any censure resolution at the March meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency board. The message to Tehran: America doesn’t care if you’re hiding nuclear sites and materials, nor does it care about your compliance with global nonproliferation agreements.

Iran’s response was predictable. The regime cut back U.N. access to its declared nuclear sites, produced uranium metal, a key component of nuclear weapons, and increased its enrichment purity level to 60% — dangerously close to weapons-grade. Considering Tehran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation, the obvious course of action presented itself: Refer the matter to the Security Council and restore U.N. sanctions on Iran. But in June, September, and November, Biden opted against any action that could provoke Iran at the IAEA’s quarterly board meetings.

Biden made other poor choices as well. He chose not to respond militarily to the March death of a U.S. contractor in Iraq. He chose not to respond militarily for months thereafter despite continuous drone and rocket attacks targeting U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. And the two times he authorized a U.S. military response, he directed fire at non-Iranian personnel or installations rather than targeting the Revolutionary Guard commanders orchestrating the attacks.

Biden also gave a green light to Iranian adventurism in the region, a large source of chaos, instability, and deadly violence. In Yemen, Biden ended U.S. military support for a Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis and rescinded the group’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization. On Tehran’s orders, the Houthis responded by increasing missile and drone attacks against Saudi and Emirati citizens. In other words, Iran responded to Biden’s concession with more violence against U.S. allies. How did Biden respond to this pattern? By rewarding it. The administration removed American missile defense from the Saudi kingdom, which invited more Houthi attacks. In mid-January, a combined drone, ballistic missile, and cruise missile attack on Abu Dhabi left at least three people dead.

If the supreme leader had any doubt left about whether he could establish Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state without fearing a U.S. military response, Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, looking the other way as the Taliban marched on Kabul, sealed his calculus.

All the while, Biden let Iran’s economy stabilize. He suspended sanctions, which gave the regime access to billions of dollars more in frozen funds. And he refused to crack down as China increased its imports of Iranian oil. As Tehran’s regional violence increased and its nuclear transgressions continued unabated, Washington essentially helped the mullahs avoid a financial crisis.

Never has a U.S. president given up so much leverage so quickly for absolutely zero gain. To borrow a football analogy, Biden started his presidency with Iran backed up against its own goal line, and he deliberately allowed the regime to march all the way to America’s red zone, the threshold of nuclear weapons.

The president made a bet one year ago that abandoning maximum pressure in favor of maximum deference would somehow induce the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism that pledges “Death to America” to make concessions. He lost that bet. And every time he doubles down on that bet instead of admitting his mistake, he loses again.

Biden came into office and implemented a new Iran policy. He owns its failure.

Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg.

20 views0 comments


bottom of page