Elliott Abrams, former U.S. special envoy for Iran and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to a March 19 Middle East Forum webinar (video) (also accessible on C-SPAN) about the Biden administration's approach to Iran.
According to Abrams, the four problems that Iran is presenting as a "challenge to the U.S." are its nuclear program, its support for regional terror proxies, its missile program, and its human rights violations. The Obama administration threw all of its weight into negotiating the flawed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to deal with the first challenge, while neglecting the other three. The Trump administration undertook a "maximum pressure" policy toward Iran intended to bring Iran to the table to negotiate a better, more comprehensive agreement. This pressure would have increased still further had Trump been re-elected.
The current Biden administration has expressed its desire to return to the JCPOA, make it "longer and stronger," and further address Iran's missiles and regional misconduct. Although the Trump administration's ramping up of pressure on Iran was "a gift to the Biden administration ... giving [it] additional leverage with which to negotiate," Abrams argued that Biden's strategy is flawed on two counts. First, it is predicated upon lifting key sanctions in exchange for Iran's return to compliance with the JCPOA, which would weaken the administration's leverage both in seeking to strengthen the nuclear agreement and in winning concessions on missiles and terrorism.
Second, the assumption that Iran is even interested in returning to the JCPOA is dubious:
Why would we think that the Supreme leader wants to go back to the JCPOA? [Iran would] have to move backwards on [its] nuclear program and for what?... So [the Iranian people] can have more of a consumer economy? So that people can buy a new car, so that people can vacation [abroad] instead of vacationing at home? ... Why would he want that? Why is that a big deal for him? ... Do we actually think he wants good, normalized relations with the United States? I don't.
Iran's economy is "reasonably stable" because of China's purchase of Iranian oil, which "helps [it] survive U.S. sanctions," and Tehran is hoping to "get its hands on ... frozen funds" from China and South Korea, Abrams said. "The critical thing ... from an economic point of view is Asia and China."
Iran may calculate that it can continue to flout both the JCPOA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty without incurring problems with China and Russia. Although the Europeans considered introducing a resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board to pressure Iran, they backed off because the Chinese and Russians were "completely non-supportive." Although Beijing and Moscow "don't want Iran to move down the road toward a nuclear weapon ... they do like to see the confrontation between the West and Iran. So they're going to have to make a decision."
Abrams argued that Iran will likely continue flouting nuclear restrictions in hopes that the U.S. and the EU3 (i.e., France, UK, Germany) will "panic."
So far, the Biden administration is "hanging tough," he said. It is "not panicking ... [and] not giving sanctions relief merely to get Iran to come back to the table," as many feared it would. Although many of Biden's Iran advisors are former Obama administration officials, they appear to be "thinking about this anew. It's not 2015, they recognize this."
Biden officials appear to be "thinking about this anew. It's not 2015, they recognize this."
Abrams urged Biden to publicly pledge to "never permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon." He did this as a candidate, but it would be "useful" for him to "reiterate that" as president.
Abrams noted approvingly that the Biden administration recently responded to attacks on U.S. forces by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq with military action against Kata'ib Hezbollah, the anti-American Shiite militia operating in both Iraq and Syria. But the administration missed an opportunity to negotiate an end to attacks on Saudi oil facilities by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen when it unconditionally reversed their designation as a terror group by the Trump administration. This signaled to Iran that Washington is "distancing ... from Saudi Arabia," and as a result Houthi "misconduct" has increased.
The Biden administration must not "abandon and forget" the Iranian people.
Finally, Abrams cautioned the Biden administration not to "abandon and forget" the Iranian people as it seeks an agreement with their government. Abrams expects that Khamenei will install a "hardliner" as president in June, and that the regime's brutal suppression of its subjects will continue unabated. "We should be doing more than we are ... to help the people of Iran in their struggle ... for the democracy that they have fighting for [over] many decades."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.