Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke to a February 21 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about President Biden's appeasement of the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of his administration's desperate attempt to finalize a nuclear deal with Tehran.
According to Goldberg, the Biden administration hopes for an agreement with the mullahs in Tehran in which Washington would lift sanctions and give the regime "the potential to retain much of the nuclear gains that they have ... advanced over the last year since Biden took office." He anticipates three key messages the administration will tout to justify its deal to the American public — all of which are "misleading."
First, it will insist that the defunct nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), "was working" before President Trump left it in 2018. Goldberg exposed this as a "false statement": the "JCPOA [that] was not working." Nevertheless, the administration will argue that returning to the deal is the "only way to avoid either a war in the Middle East or a nuclear armed Iran." In fact, Goldberg argued, the JCPOA "legitimized" Iran's path to a nuclear weapon by enabling the regime to retain its "illicit nuclear infrastructure ... built clandestinely" even as it "extort[s] the international community" in pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
The U.N. Security Council voted to include "sunset clauses" in the JCPOA in a weak attempt to maintain a check on Iran's behavior. In essence, the Council voted to lift the arms embargo in 2020 and its missile embargo in 2023 if Iran kept to the deal. All other restraints were designed to "fall away," so that by 2031, Iran would be fully unleashed to "enrich uranium up to weapons grade." Every supposed benchmarks were "ludicrous," Goldberg said, because the restrictions in the JCPOA "would allow Iran to do exactly what it's doing today, only with the full legitimacy of international law."
Despite Biden's claims, Trump's policy of "maximum pressure" had Iran "up against a wall."
The second message the White House will try to sell is that Trump's policy of exerting "maximum pressure" on Iran failed. Yet the record, Goldberg said, "is absolutely the opposite." The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported at the beginning of 2021 that "Iran was down to four billion dollars in accessible foreign exchange reserves," and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was actively investigating Iran's "undeclared nuclear activities." Goldberg said that due to those conditions, Iran "was up against a wall."
Other countries, including the U.K., were in line to support the "push to snap back U.N. sanctions" in response to Iran's non-compliance with the JCPOA, its escalation of its nuclear program, and its lack of cooperation with the IAEA. In addition, the assassinations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Commander Qassem Soleimani and the chief of its nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, resulted in "strong military deterrence" which unnerved the regime. In light of the fact that Iran was "faced with economic pressure ... political pressure ... [and] military deterrence" combined, Goldberg believes that "maximum pressure was absolutely working."
Despite its success, Biden replaced Trump's policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran with one Goldberg calls "maximum deference" because it loosened the economic pressure by not enforcing sanctions. To curry favor with the regime, the Biden administration instructed the Treasury and State Departments to issue waivers to "allow Iran access to its frozen funds."
Similarly, Washington sat on its hands when Iranian proxies targeted U.S. forces with Iranian drones and missiles. Goldberg said, "A [U.S.] contractor was killed in Western Iraq ... last year, [with] no military response whatsoever." The IAEA "pulled back" its investigation into Iranian non-compliance, while the administration pressured European allies not to "provoke Iran." The Iranian response to Biden's feckless policy, said Goldberg, was to "[escalate] its nuclear program ... more severely under maximum deference than it did under maximum pressure." Tehran escalated enrichment and produced "key [components] of nuclear weapons ... harassed IAEA inspectors ... and [increased] ... attacks throughout the region."
The third administration talking point holds that the current deal is essentially the same as the original JCPOA, albeit with some "amendments." However, the new deal being "negotiated in Vienna" allows even more sanctions relief than the original deal. Terrorism sanctions placed on Iranian individuals and entities for funding terror, as well as missile sanctions permitted under Barack Obama in 2015, are now "on the table to be lifted with money flowing directly to the IRGC." Congress ordered these sanctions on a bipartisan basis in 2017 while the old JCPOA deal was in place, yet Biden is offering to lift these sanctions in the "new deal."
Under the new agreement, Iran's breakout time to produce a nuclear weapon could shrink to perhaps six months.
Goldberg calculated that under the new agreement, Iran's "breakout timeline" to produce one nuclear weapon "will shrink down perhaps to six months," based on the regime's progress in building and deploying "advanced centrifuges." The new deal will grant Iran the ability to retain those capabilities, thereby enabling them to move more quickly towards a nuclear weapon. Goldberg said the fallacy of "believing that you have restrictions on Iran" is "really just being an ostrich with national security." "We are heading to a worse deal," he said, "that gives Iran more money for less concessions and a greater ability to threaten us in the future at any time."
Obama avoided submitting the Iran nuclear deal to the U.S. Senate "as a treaty for ratification" because he knew he could never get the Congressional votes "to pass and ratify this deal as a treaty." Prior to the JCPOA, there was an "international consensus that Iran should not be allowed to enrich uranium" based on what Goldberg called "the gold standard for civil nuclear power," as it avoids "proliferation threats that come with enrichment on someone's soil." An "oil-rich" Iran's claim for a "civil nuclear program" is a ruse to conceal its "clandestine nuclear weapons program."
In addition to the nuclear site at Natanz, exposed twenty years ago "by dissident groups," and the Fordow site, "[Iran's] underground mountain facility," exposed in 2009, it is now known that since 2015, Iran, while purportedly "negotiating the nuclear deal and implementing it," was at the same time hiding a "secret nuclear weapons archive." Once exposed, it gave the IAEA access to "undeclared nuclear sites" where testing proved there was nuclear material unaccounted for, although by that time the containers had been moved and the area "sanitized." The IAEA still has an unresolved "active open investigation."
The list of "[malign] activities" not addressed in Biden's new deal includes the U.S. hostages still languishing in Iran, "money owed to U.S. victims" of Iran-sponsored terrorism, Iran's human rights abuses, and Iran's role as one of the "largest sponsors of antisemitism in the world." Also missing from the deal are any restraints on Iran's development and testing of longer range "ballistic and cruise missiles," or any mechanisms to force it to withdraw its IRGC and proxy forces inflaming the Middle East in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza. Goldberg said that Iran has used the billions of dollars it has exacted from the West to expand its terror activities, "[meddle] in other countries," expand its missile program, and "advance R&D on advanced centrifuges" to accelerate its nuclear program.
Goldberg "If you wanted to know what will trigger a war in the Middle East or a nuclear Iran, it is the deal that's coming."
Goldberg warned that failing to hold Iran accountable could have dire consequences: "If you wanted to know what will trigger a war in the Middle East or a nuclear Iran, it is the deal that's coming." Therefore, he urged Congress to "do three things" to hold Biden's "new worst deal in history" accountable:
First, defend its prerogative of oversights by demanding that the Biden administration submit the deal to Congress under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or hold it in violation of the law. Any claim that it is the same deal as 2015 to avoid doing so will render it an "illegitimate agreement."
Second, defend terrorism sanctions, as the agreement will be "completely illegitimate" if the U.S. lifts these sanctions "without any change in Iran's sponsorship of terrorism." Instead, Congress should "push legislation to reimpose all sanctions tied to terrorism."
And third, defend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "Giving Iran any money and legitimizing its nuclear program" during an "active investigation into undeclared nuclear activities" is, in Goldberg's estimation, "the height of insanity."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.