Updated: Feb 9
Iran was under extreme pressure a year ago. Now it’s on the verge of a deal with better terms for Iran than the original JCPOA.
Just a few short months since his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden is barreling toward another foreign policy disaster of his own making: a stunning yet predictable “agreement” to let Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, remain just steps away from the nuclear threshold while lifting U.S. terrorism sanctions without any cessation of the regime’s support for terrorists.
Calling this an agreement, of course, would be kind. What is likely to emerge from Vienna, where Biden’s special envoy for Iran is making indirect overtures to Tehran through a Russian intermediary, can best be described as a surrender.
Biden inherited the most economic leverage over another country in the history of financial warfare. He also commands the largest and most powerful military in the world. You’d never know either to be true from the way his administration approached the Islamic Republic during its first year: loosening sanctions, shredding military deterrence, and holding back political accountability for nuclear and regional misconduct.
The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had fatal flaws, including weak verification measures and a raft of “sunset clauses” that gradually lifted the most important restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program. JCPOA proponents liked to claim the deal put Iran’s nuclear program in a box—though it was more of a jack-in-the-box with Iran capable of shooting out at any time of its choosing. If there’s a box involved in Biden’s deal, it will effectively have no sides or top.
Under the impending arrangement, details of which are slowly emerging, Iran may be allowed to produce high-enriched uranium, stockpile more of that enriched uranium, advance its centrifuge program to hasten a future nuclear breakout, accelerate its development of longer-range nuclear-capable missiles, and stonewall the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into undeclared nuclear sites and materials discovered over the last three years. In exchange, the United States would suspend terrorism and missile sanctions on Iran, not just nuclear sanctions—providing an economic bailout to Tehran while flooding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with cash.
What’s more, the new arrangement would preserve the sunset provisions from the JCPOA, which are now six years closer to taking effect than they were originally. The date for the expiration of the international arms embargo on Iran has already passed, the missile embargo expires next year, and the end of all enrichment restrictions is coming in the next few years. Those sunsets were established on condition that Iran complied with the terms of the JCPOA, yet the new deal apparently requires no such thing. That Iran could remain non-compliant with the JCPOA and keep the sunsets will be a significant policy question not just for Biden, but for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who holds the power to trigger a “snapback” of U.N. sanctions on Iran.
The travesty of this agreement is painfully compounded by one of its prime beneficiaries: Ebrahim Raisi, the newly installed Iranian president described by experts as a gruesome and unapologetic killer. Gone is the illusion of coming to terms with a so-called moderate or reformer. This will be a blood pact delivered to mass murderers and terrorists. And it will be a poke in the eye to the 1,200 Gold Star family members who asked the Biden administration not to release funds to the regime until all federal judgments were paid to American victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism.
The turnabout for Iran is breathtaking. A regime that was under more pressure one year ago than it was before the JCPOA is being handed better terms than it received under the prior deal. Despite being warned time and again to abandon its carrot-filled, stickless negotiating strategy, the Biden administration is poised to conclude an agreement precisely as bad as Biden’s critics predicted.
That’s apparently why Richard Nephew, the second-ranking U.S. negotiator in Vienna —and a key player in negotiating the JCPOA in 2015—abandoned the talks late last year. It’s also likely what prompted Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to take to the Senate floor this week to warn the administration against this kind of agreement.
The president, keep in mind, came into office vowing to return to the JCPOA as a springboard to negotiations over a longer and stronger deal that would address the prior agreement’s many deficiencies. But once Tehran realized it could race forward with its nuclear program and still receive sanctions relaxation in return, the notion of a longer and stronger deal faded quickly.
The administration claimed it was preparing a Plan B if Iran refused to return to the JCPOA. Plan B apparently did not include the obvious option of restoring economic pressure and threatening the use of military force. Instead, it consists of giving Tehran whatever it wants.
Reportedly, the White House wants to lay the blame for its bad deal at the feet of Donald Trump, who withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018. But it is a direct result of Joe Biden’s policy choices. He decided to relax sanctions on Iran. He decided not to respond militarily to attacks on U.S. forces, including the death of a U.S. contractor. He decided not to hold Iran accountable before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He decided to rescind America’s attempted snapback of U.N. sanctions.
Rather than reciprocate these goodwill gestures, Tehran recognized that Biden was desperate. It began taking bold steps it never dared to risk before the 2020 presidential election, like manufacturing uranium metal, a key component of nuclear weapons, or enriching uranium to 20 and then 60 percent purity, which is dangerously close to weapons grade.
The White House knows it cannot win a debate on the merits of this prospective agreement. If it were submitted to the U.S. Senate as a treaty, which it ought to be, the Senate would reject it overwhelmingly. So it’s preparing instead for a different fight: a congressional attempt to use the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act—a law passed by Congress in 2015 ahead of the JCPOA debate—that allows the House and Senate to consider a joint resolution of disapproval before the president can lift sanctions.
To wage that political fight, the administration will resort to a blame game, invoking Trump’s name whenever possible to give congressional Democrats a political talking point. And it may falsely claim it’s this deal or war: the same false choice that Barack Obama employed to keep just enough Democrats in line to keep the JCPOA alive.
But the pushback from Congress should be swift and furious. Just as the Afghanistan withdrawal will forever be Biden’s responsibility, the new worst deal in history is a result of Biden’s policy failure alone. And since this deal, if it runs its course, would leave Iran on the threshold of nuclear weapons—potentially adjacent to an Israeli red line for military action—Congress could retort, it’s not “this deal or war,” but more likely this deal and war.
Congress should also decry the illegitimacy of an agreement that suspends terrorism sanctions without any change in the underlying conduct of Iranian banks and companies that support the Quds Force, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorists. Congress can also rightly say that any deal that ignores an active investigation into undeclared nuclear material and sites inside Iran would eviscerate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—triggering a cascade of crises in other countries in the years ahead.
Members of the House and Senate need not tie themselves to another foreign policy debacle from a White House in political freefall. Now is the time to reject a foolhardy proposal. True “Plan Bs” do exist. Tell the president to choose another path.
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 governor of Illinois’s chief of staff and as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer.