The Oslo-based nonprofit Iran Human Rights warned this week that the Islamic Republic is poised to execute up to 100 Iranians for protesting against the regime. Meanwhile, Iran’s illicit nuclear activities continue apace, moving Tehran closer to a bomb. Despite these developments, the Biden administration’s Iran policy still amounts to one of strategic neglect. A hands-off approach with Tehran today will only demand President Joe Biden’s attention later, and at a much greater cost—potentially including military confrontation.
U.S. Iran policy currently rests on the hope that Tehran will not intensify its malign conduct as Washington focuses on other priorities: arming Ukraine, competing with China, and a range of domestic issues. The West is hedging its bets: If Iran’s uprising fails, the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), remains an option to bribe Tehran to temporarily refrain from dashing to nuclear weapons. The West seems unconcerned that the deal’s revival would pump some $1 trillion in revenue to Iran by 2030, helping the regime shore up its hold on power, repress its people, and attack its neighbors.
Moreover, Biden has all but admitted he will not challenge Iran’s mounting nuclear advances, which have positioned Tehran to make weapons-grade uranium for several atomic weapons in under a month.
The president acknowledged on camera that the JCPOA is dead, but his administration will not announce its demise. Biden may believe doing so would cause the regime to rush to the nuclear threshold. The reaction from Tehran? It keeps moving toward the nuclear threshold.
The clearest sign that Washington’s Iran policy rests on latent hope for the JCPOA’s resurrection: The administration has not tried to convince France, Britain, or Germany, which remain parties to the JCPOA, to trigger the reimposition of United Nations sanctions (that the accord had lifted) against Iran. No matter that Tehran has blown by the deal’s limits for the past three-and-a-half years, and is egregiously violating one remaining UN resolution by providing drones and missiles to Russia.
The Biden administration has failed to learn a basic axiom of U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy: The retrenchment of American power leaves chaos in its wake.
Washington’s reticence to assist the Iranian people seems rooted in fear of entangling the United States in messy foreign regime change adventures. Yet if the United States does not at least attempt to shape positive outcomes in Iran, it will lose its best chance in years to help the Iranian people oust their oppressors—who also happen to be the primary source of Middle East instability.
Failure to act will have consequences. Tehran’s temptation to sprint to nuclear weapons is only increasing given the regime’s insecurity at home. In the absence of international pushback, Iran is amassing more and more highly enriched uranium and fortifying its breakout capabilities underground. Iran has systematically curtailed monitoring by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The international community has only tepidly supported a four-year-old IAEA investigation of Iran’s past efforts to produce and weaponize nuclear material in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). These activities may covertly persist today.
Russia’s relative autonomy to attack its neighbors helps explain why Iran might now seek nuclear weapons: The West refrains from too much interference in Ukraine out of fear that Moscow would use atomic bombs. Yet a nuclear-armed Iran would change the game in the Middle East, providing the Islamic Republic with cover to advance conventional attacks against its regional foes and pursue its quest for regional hegemony, while solidifying its hold on power.
Washington should adopt a policy of maximum support for the Iranian people by coupling targeted economic sanctions with penalties against regime officials. Quietly improving communication and coordination among Iranian protesters, ensuring access to information and news, and providing funds to striking labor unions and workers would also help breathe life into Iranian civil society’s efforts.
Biden must convince his European partners that they must end negotiations over the expiring nuclear deal. Instead, they should revive a transatlantic maximum pressure campaign against Iran to eliminate Tehran’s sources of revenue abroad. The Biden administration should fully enforce its own oil sanctions against Iran by penalizing Chinese, Syrian, Iranian, and other foreign entities that are transporting and purchasing Iran’s oil and keeping its economy afloat.
Concurrently, the Iran nuclear issue merits a special session by the IAEA Board of Governors to censure Tehran’s nuclear escalations and non-cooperation with the IAEA investigation into Tehran’s potential NPT violations. The board should vote to refer Iran’s case to the UN Security Council, and the council should snap back UN sanctions on Iran.
Reimposing UN sanctions would have the bonus of reviving a UN embargo outlawing Iranian sales of conventional arms and drones and would prevent the full lifting of a UN missile and drone embargo next October. Once that embargo lifts, Tehran’s provision of all drones and missiles to Moscow will be legal.
Strategic neglect in America’s Iran policy will lead to far worse results as the regime murders innocents at home, assists Russia’s slaughter of Ukrainians abroad, and marches toward nuclear weapons. If the United States fails to act in the new year, military action may constitute its only alternative.
Andrea Stricker is deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.