Nuclear Deal Smokescreens
How the Biden Administration Covers Up Its Empowerment of Iran
1. A Change in U.S.-Israeli Relations?
As the parties to the Iranian nuclear deal iron out its final details, unease in Jerusalem grows. Barak Ravid of Axios reported last week that, in response to an Iranian demand, President Biden was considering reversing President Trump’s designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The news elicited a storm of protests from Israel, including from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “Unfortunately,” Bennett wrote in a statement released on his Telegram channel, “we see the determination [of the Americans] to sign the nuclear deal with Iran at almost any cost, including saying of the world's largest terrorist organization that it is not a terrorist organization. But this cost is too high.”
Does this statement mark a turning point in relations between the Bennett government and the Biden administration? In general, this Israeli government has bent over backwards to avoid publicly attacking Biden’s Iran policy. In private, it has made its feelings known, albeit diplomatically. For example, last December, when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz came to Washington, he proposed an alternative policy. “What I told them,” Gantz explained to a group of Israeli journalists, “was that Iran has bad cards [to play] at the moment, and the economic situation there is difficult. Therefore, there is room for international pressure—political, economic and also military—so that Iran can stop its fantasies about the nuclear program.”
Applying pressure across all fronts simultaneously to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program—sound familiar? It should. Under the name “maximum pressure” President Donald Trump adopted precisely that policy. But in Israel today “maximum pressure” is the approach that dare not speak its name, because Team Biden will take offense.
Here at The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East we welcome the new willingness in Jerusalem to air grievances openly. We also share the concerns of the Israeli government about removing the IRGC from the terror list. However, we do wonder whether the Bennett government chose the right issue over which to take a stand. Suppose the White House turns around and says that, after listening to Jerusalem, it has decided not to remove the IRGC from the terror list. In that case, Bennett and Lapid will have helped the Biden team appear attentive to Israel, when in fact it is downgrading the Jewish State in American strategic calculations.
The terror designation of the IRGC is not a trivial issue, but it is also not the heart of the matter. Biden is aligning American policy with Iran. Even if the terror designation remains, the Iran deal will channel hundreds of billions of dollars to the IRGC over the next decade and provide Iran with a pathway to a nuclear weapon. Those are the problems, and they need to be stated openly. The IRGC designation is a secondary issue.
2. Patriot Missiles to Saudi Arabia
The Biden administration is downgrading not just Israel but, indeed, all of America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies. To disguise that fact, it has delivered a significant number of Patriot missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. Sending Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia is certainly the right thing to do, but it is definitely not a sign of a change in strategy in Washington. According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration is presenting the move as “part of an effort by the Biden administration to rebuild its relationship with Riyadh.” Patriots missiles, however, will not deter Iran, the sticking point of the Washington-Riyadh partnership. Nor will they address the shift in the balance of power toward Iran that the nuclear deal represents. We see this move not as a sincere effort to repair relations with the Saudis but as part of a public relations plan for selling the Iran nuclear deal. It allows the administration to claim, before critics in Congress, that it is not abandoning allies when in fact it is.
3. Hostage Releases
Last week, as part of the effort to pave the way for the nuclear deal, Tehran released two British hostages, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, who arrived back home on March 16. The plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a mother of a little girl, has received an unusual amount of media attention in Britain. Her husband has worked tirelessly to keep her story in the press ever since she was taken hostage in April 2016, when she was arrested on a trumped-up charge of spying. In arranging the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the architects of the nuclear deal intended, presumably, to deny their critics an obvious line of attack, namely, that the deal shows callous disregard for the plight of a well-known hostage and her family.
Her release coincided with a payment of £393.8 million to the Iranians by the British government. Mike Pompeo, who served as Secretary of State under President Donald Trump, tweeted that the payment was “blood money” that would be used to “terrorize Israel, [the] UK and US.” The British government denied the accusation, noting that the payment was a “legitimate debt,” which dated back to the Shah’s era, when Iran purchased but never received British tanks. It also stressed that the payment was arrived at in parallel to the hostage negotiations, not as part of them.
Pompeo has the better argument. To be sure, it is impossible to witness the reunion of Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her husband and daughter without feeling happiness for the family and relief that their nightmare is over. On a basic human level, one wants to see an end to the suffering of innocents. But we also know that this deal rewarded hostage taking, and it therefore will not be the last of its kind. Shameless, cruel, and cynical, Iranian leaders are not embarrassed by the adverse media attention that it received for keeping a mother from her young daughter for five years. On the contrary, they no doubt calculated that the attention only served to put more pressure on the British government, thus ensuring a higher ransom payment.
Nor will the completion of the nuclear deal moderate their behavior. The architects of the deal may fool themselves into believing that it augurs better relations with Iran – as this BBC report suggests. But there is no evidence that leaders in Tehran harbor a reciprocal attitude. After all, the regime arrested Zaghari-Ratcliffe in 2016, shortly after President Obama first negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and while he was still in office. Back then, Obama’s Echo Chamber was working overtime to convince us that the deal expressed an intention on the part of the Islamic Republic to open a new page in relations with the West. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s abduction, however, tells us that, from Tehran’s point of view, the nuclear deal changed nothing. Nor was Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case an isolated event. Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student, was also imprisoned in 2016 on trumped-up espionage charges. If the past is anything to go by, the resurrection of the nuclear deal will generate more abductions.
Indeed, hostage taking is baked into the DNA of the Islamic Republic. Why? There are some obvious motives that explain the regime’s penchant for kidnapping: making money, exchanging hostages for imprisoned Iranian spies, gaining leverage at the negotiating table, and carrying out retribution for policies that harm the Islamic Republic. But we can think of at least four other reasons, as well.
First, partisan infighting, Iran-style. In recent years, Iran has taken dozens of foreigners and dual nationals hostage. In most cases, the abductor has been the IRGC, which seeks to limit cultural, political, and economic engagements with the outside world. It takes hostages to ensure that that it will serve as the final arbiter of any openings, especially to the West.
Second, blocking political reform. During Ahmadinejad's presidency, the Iranian authorities arrested several academics working on civil society issues. In April 2006, for example, they arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian-Canadian philosopher. Mohseni Ejei, the intelligence minister, accused Jahanbegloo of working, under American inspiration, to launch a color revolution in Iran.
Third, fear of espionage. On May 8, 2007, intelligence officials arrested Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., and accused her of spying.
Fourth, protecting IRGC assets. A law unto itself, the IRGC acquires public lands to support its institutional needs and to construct vacation villas for the personal use of its senior members. One protest group is particularly vociferous about this abuse: dual-national environmental activists. The IRGC demonstrates a special zeal for detaining them. When the Iranian-Canadian academic and conservationist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in detention, the authorities claimed he committed suicide, but they likely killed him to silence him.
Even this cursory survey reveals that the hostility toward foreigners and dual nationals is, in part, a product of the internal politics of the Islamic Republic. Support for the regime probably does not extend beyond twenty percent of the Iranian public. Even among supporters, a significant segment remains loyal only because its interests are intimately bound up in the existing order, not because it truly subscribes to the official ideology. The regime is paranoid, because it is sitting atop a volcano.
Abductions are one method by which Iran’s leaders, with an economy of force, can discipline the reformist elements among the elite. Hostage taking will not abate until the West exacts costs from the regime that outweigh the benefits of the practice. It will not end altogether until the regime disappears. Any expectation that the nuclear deal will moderate the regime is a pipe dream.