Negotiation or Capitulation?

The Biden administration’s approach to the threat of Iran seems more like capitulation than it does negotiation.

Recent reports from reputable outlets like the New York Times have suggested that the Biden administration seeks to restart negotiations with the Iranian regime as to their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. This is not surprising for anyone who has been paying attention to this issue; Biden campaigned on re-entering several diplomatic agreements negotiated by the Obama administration, including the Iran Nuclear Deal known as the JCPOA. The problem with this approach arises not from the idea of diplomacy generally, but from the specifics of the current situation with Iran. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed since Biden last worked in the White House in January 2017.

First off, the circumstances surrounding the initial JCPOA have evaporated into the ether. The US left the deal in 2018; sanctions have snapped back on Iran; Russia and China — two nations who participated in the original deal — are now even more clearly enemies of the United States & the liberal world order; the Iranians have accelerated their support of terrorism in the region; and, perhaps most importantly, a clear anti-Iran bloc has emerged in the Middle East. What was once seen as an impossibility — advanced cooperation between Israel and some of her rich Arab neighbors — has now come to pass. These shifts in the geopolitical calculus have fundamentally altered the situation in the Middle East as it relates to Iran and her nuclear ambitions. Now there is a serious coalition of nations aligned firmly against Tehran and its domineering instincts, one that includes many of our nominal allies and friends, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Besides this new segmentation of the regional power dynamics, the past few years have made it perfectly obvious that the biggest threat to peace and security in the Middle East is the theocracy in Iran and its sponsorship of terrorism. The former Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has been effectively crushed: it no longer controls a territorial ‘Caliphate’ and now operates as just one terror group of many in a tumultuous area of Iraq and Syria. The threat which faces American troops and interests in the region now emanates more from the Shi’ite Iranians and their proxies than from the Sunni terrorists of ISIS and their ilk. In fact, Iranian-linked militias attacked American positions in Iraq just a few weeks ago, killing a contractor and wounding several others, including an American serviceman. Just this week, the Biden administration retaliated for this attack by striking Iran-backed militia positions on the Iraq-Syria border; I fully support those strikes, although I would have preferred a more muscular approach versus a purely ‘proportionate’ response. What these strikes do more than anything, however, is put into sharp relief how backwards and conciliatory the Biden administration position is vis a vis Iran.

The juxtaposition of the Biden administration’s kinetic measures and its diplomatic advances is jarring and lacks that one thing which is paramount in foreign policy: consistency. Now, let’s not pretend that the last administration had a completely consistent foreign policy — it didn’t, at all. But one place the Trump administration was consistent was in its treatment of Iran. The strategy of maximum pressure was held throughout the Trump presidency and it seemed to pay dividends over the course of those 4 years. By January 20, 2021, Iran had been effectively cut off from a great deal of international trade, was largely isolated diplomatically, faced a newly-minted coalition of opposition across the region, was dealing with massive economic crises, and had seen its nuclear ambitions seriously curbed. Not only that, but 2 of the regime’s key figures in developing and weaponizing their nuclear program — Qassem Soleimani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — were killed in targeted assassinations, seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The current American position seems to ignore all of these facts and the leverage that comes with them in order to attempt a return to a failed and dangerous 2016 status quo. The idea that we would choose to freely offer the boon of new negotiations to Iran’s revanchist regime, right at their moment of great weakness, strikes me as entirely insane. These negotiations are being proffered with no significant preconditions, a critical error that would be expected from a student in Negotiations 101, not the diplomatic apparatus of the strongest country on the planet. It was wrong and absurd for the Trump administration to push for precondition-free negotiations with both the North Koreans and the Taliban; it’s wrong and absurd for the Biden administration to push them with Iran, a state just as threatening as the aforementioned groups.

Sunset provisions included in the original JCPOA. These clauses were seen as bad in 2015 and look even worse today.

Besides the stunning lack of preconditions, the Biden administration has also had other lapses in judgment with respect to their negotiating posture. The biggest such lapse involves the initial negotiation position of the US: a return to the previous Iran Deal with no changes on any side. According to the New York Times report, the US will try to close a gap between this initial position and the Iranian position — a better deal for Tehran with all sanctions lifted and the regime’s other malign actions (including sponsorship of terrorism) going unnoticed. This is another error right out of basic negotiation classes: never start with the position that you hope to finish with. On an alphabetic scale, if you truly want M and your opponent wants Z, you should start the negotiation from a posture of demanding A; by that strategy, you will be able to make ‘concessions’ to your opponent and still end up in your favored position. The 2015 JCPOA should be the very least we are willing to accept in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, we are starting from that position and will necessarily end up with something worse. As the original JCPOA was horrendously flawed (see the myriad sunset provisions in the image above to better understand why), we cannot allow an even worse deal to be made. The 2015 deal would essentially expire in a decade, allowing Tehran to rapidly accelerate their nuclear weapons development with the full legal and economic support of the West behind them. This conciliatory approach has already been embraced by other participants in the failed nuclear deal, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the group tasked with inspecting and confirming Iran’s compliance with nuclear proliferation strictures. The IAEA just recently gave the Iranian regime greater flexibility in its inspections system, allowing Tehran to further its nuclear program under an umbrella of secrecy. The Biden State Department has basically ratified this submissive position, saying on a call with reporters that “These are not concessions to Iran. These are concessions to common sense.” If this is common sense, it seems to accord quite well with the fervent desires of a totalitarian theocratic government.

Another problem with the Biden approach is that it entirely disregards the diplomatic advancements in the Middle East since 2016. By working towards a return to the JCPOA with the same partners we had last time around (Iran, Germany, France, the UK, China, and Russia), we are acting against the interests and desires of much of the region, including several of our important military partners. We cannot in good conscience fail to include our Arab and Israeli friends in any future agreement with Tehran, especially as they would be the first and primary targets of any future Iranian nuclear action. Israel is particularly special in this case, as Iran has repeatedly stated its intention to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the Earth. These genocidal intentions are not to be discounted, and nuclear armaments would help the Ayatollah immensely to achieve this goal. Refusing to include the Arabs and Israelis in future dealings in which they would be principally impacted would alienate these nations and create greater friction between the Arab-Israeli bloc and the pro-Iran bloc, setting the stage for conflict down the line. As the stated objective of the Iran Deal was to reduce the likelihood of direct armed conflict, it would be counterproductive to return to the JCPOA of 2015. Finally, any new deal with the Iranians must include ending their support of terrorism throughout the world. A two-track diplomacy, where Iranian nuclear ambitions can be temporarily put on ice at the cost of the West financing Iranian terror programs, is not sustainable and should not be pursued. A new Iran Deal must have two things to be seen as successful: permanency and totality. That means that the deal must stop Iranian nuclear proliferation in perpetuity as well as ending their financing and support of global terrorism. Neither seems likely given the current approach.

To achieve these dual goals, the Biden administration must be consistent. The kinetic military response to Iran’s recent aggression is a good start, but it must be combined with pressure on the diplomatic front. Otherwise, this airstrike will be seen as a fig leaf for a conciliatory and weak policy, a schizophrenic approach that reeks of confusion, and a laughable attempt to look ‘strong’ on Iran without actually doing much real harm to their ambitions or capabilities. That is not something we can afford in an increasingly dangerous, tumultuous, and multipolar world. Projecting strength and using leverage exhibits our power; looking inconsistent and conceding to a weaker regime showcases our frailty. Thus far, the Biden approach seems to be less negotiation and more capitulation.

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