Just last week, Israeli, American, and Iranian officials confirmed what many suspected for months — the United States and Iran are conducting indirect talks seeking a new nuclear agreement. Last year, following 17 months of no results, negotiations between Iran and the United States were halted following Iran's brutal treatment of women and protestors domestically and its role in helping the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
The pause didn't last long. Soon after, the Biden administration resumed indirect talks with the Islamic Republic, seeking to avoid a much-touted Plan B even if the outcome was the complete opposite of what the administration had promised two years ago.
The American goal of these talks is to reach an informal agreement with the Iranians. This deal will require Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment at its current level of 60 percent, just a few weeks away from the weapon's grade 90 percent level. The Iranians must also cease attacking U.S. troops in Syria and abstain from transferring missiles, but not drones, to Russia. In exchange, the Iranians will receive sanctions relief, some of their assets will be unfrozen, and the United States will commit not to disrupt their oil trade. Washington has already shown goodwill by giving the green light to Iraq to send $2.6 billion in unpaid oil debt to Tehran.
The resumption of diplomacy between the administration and Iran was always on the agenda, yet resuming negotiations seeking to achieve much less is risking establishing a new minimum threshold for the Iranians. When the Biden administration resumed negotiations with Iran, it promised the American public and U.S. allies that it would seek a "longer and stronger" deal. Two dramatic years later, the administration is desperately going for a weaker and shorter deal that will leave Iran's nuclear program where it is while allowing the Ayatollahs to acquire billions of dollars.
Worse yet, the deal was negotiated in an unwritten honor system framework that will depend on the good word of the Iranian regime. This effort is yet another blunder of U.S. policy on Iran. The administration gave up on trying to reach a real agreement with Iran, yet also refused to commit to the security of its allies in the Middle East. Instead, Washington has opted to maintain the status quo and prolong the need for action. The proposed deal is so effete that the administration didn't even ask the Iranians to stop selling drones to Russia that are being used to commit war crimes in Ukraine.
Following the reports, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul sent a letter to President Biden, warning him that the recent informal talks with Iran call "into question your Administration's intent to follow the law and submit any agreement with Iran to Congress." Clearly, the very nature of an informal, unwritten agreement is that it could not be submitted to lawmakers or even be proven to exist.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would not be bound by such an agreement with Iran. Israeli military officials announced that Israel reserves the right to attack Iran's nuclear infrastructure if they begin systematically enriching above the 60 percent level. None of these statements are likely to stop the Biden administration. And the Iranians will gleefully agree to buy more time to build new underground nuclear facilities unreachable by American bunker-buster bombs.
The benefits for Teheran are not just strategic. If the understanding is reached, the Iranians can boast that they were able to extract billions of dollars from the White House right after severe international condemnation against the Islamic Republic for aiding Russia in Ukraine, committing severe human rights violations against its own citizens, and attacking U.S. troops in Syria.
For the Iranians, this comes after Saudi Arabia, their largest regional competitor, pivoted from a hawkish anti-Iran stance to seeking de-escalation with the Islamic Republic. Earlier this month, the Iranian embassy reopened in Riyadh, and last weekend Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhad al Saud landed in Tehran for the first time in seven years. These incremental gains enhance Tehran's reputation regionally and show that Iran is much less isolated than Israel and the United States sought to make it. Actually, today it is Israel facing isolation given the Saudi-Iranian détente, disagreements with the White House, and an intensification of anti-Israel sentiment internationally.
Regardless of the current geopolitical conditions, Iran should not be allowed to buy time and advance its nuclear program. The United States should not throw the Islamic Republic an economic lifeline to forestall the need for action in a milquetoast deal that would not do anything to resolve the issue at hand. Such an act of appeasement will only project weakness.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).