Weapons-laden Iranian warships are speeding across the Atlantic Ocean and may be destined for Venezuelan ports.
In the Red Sea, Iran-backed Houthi forces battling the internationally recognized government this week reportedly planted sea mines in a direct threat to U.S. Navy ships that sail in the strategically vital waterway.
Last month, Iranian financing helped militants from Palestinian Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group, launched an unprecedented rocket war on Israel.
Iran-linked militias in Iraq and Syria have repeatedly targeted U.S. personnel in the Middle East, and Iranian speedboats routinely harass American vessels across the region.
None of that seems to be affecting President Biden’s quest to strike a new deal with Iran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting harsh economic sanctions that President Trump reimposed.
Top Biden administration diplomats, led by special Iran envoy Robert Malley, are in their sixth round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna. They are motivated to act quickly because of the Iranian elections Friday and the growing expectation that an anti-American hard-liner will win.
Other countries involved in the talks — major European allies, Russia and China — have spoken of narrowing differences to bring the U.S. back into the deal, which Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018. State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said Tuesday that the parties have made “meaningful progress” toward a new deal but “outstanding issues” remain.
It looks increasingly unlikely that any new nuclear agreement would address other Iranian behavior. The Biden administration took a tough rhetorical line in its early weeks and signaled that Iran must make concessions before any real talks could begin, but critics say the president and his top deputies now appear to be desperate to bank a major diplomatic breakthrough quickly and save Tehran‘s worrisome activities for another day.
“No matter what Iran does, the policy is to try to ignore it,” said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a critic of the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
“Iranian proxies killed an American in Iraq — no response,” he said. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] says Iran is hiding nuclear sites and materials — no response. The Iranian navy sends ships to Venezuela — no response. And on and on the list goes.
“It’s not just bad Iran policy; it’s bad national security policy, period,” said Mr. Goldberg, who served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council under Mr. Trump. “Everyone is watching this show of American weakness: China, Russia, North Korea. And they’re learning all the wrong lessons about President Biden’s tolerance level for misconduct and extortion. … What kind of insane foreign policy is that?”
Republican criticism of the Biden team’s willingness to engage with Iran is nothing new.
Many of the same Republican figures and hawkish foreign policy analysts in Washington lambasted President Obama’s engagement with Iran, which ultimately led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. That deal freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program. Many of the same key players in Mr. Biden’s diplomatic team, including Mr. Malley, negotiated the accord.
Even though U.N. inspectors said Iran was largely abiding by the deal’s nuclear limits, Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018. He said the accord did not stop Iran‘s support of terrorist groups and other misdeeds in the Middle East.
In the years since, Iran‘s behavior has grown more brazen and destabilizing. Beyond challenging U.S. interests and allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Tehran has used drones and military speedboats to directly confront the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Pentagon and intelligence officials also are keeping a close eye on two Iranian warships believed to be transporting weapons or illegal fuel to the socialist regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Iran remains the world’s undisputed leader in direct financial support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and have long warned that Tehran has offered haven to key al Qaeda figures.
‘Back in the box’
Citing Mr. Trump’s breach of the deal as justification, Iran has disregarded the limits on uranium enrichment established by the JCPOA, potentially putting Tehran just months away from obtaining weapons-grade material.
The Biden administration says that is exactly why an updated agreement is so important. Much like the arguments Mr. Obama made years ago, Biden officials say Iran‘s nuclear program represents such a serious, immediate threat that containing it is a first-priority security imperative for the entire world.
They say Mr. Trump’s hard line and pressure campaign, including the killing of a top Iranian general in an airstrike in January 2020, did nothing to curb Iran’s bad behavior.
“If this goes on a lot longer, if they continue to gallop ahead … they’re going to have knowledge that’s going to be very hard to reverse,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday, “which I think puts some urgency in seeing if we can put the nuclear problem back in the box that the agreement had put it in that, unfortunately, Iran is now out of as a result of us pulling out of the agreement.”
Mr. Biden and other Group of Seven leaders expressed a similar sentiment over the weekend.
“We are committed to ensuring that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain said in a joint statement. “A restored and fully implemented [JCPOA] could also pave the way to further address regional and security concerns.”
The U.S. and its allies in Europe also speak out consistently against Iran‘s support for terrorism, and it’s not certain whether that issue will be absent from any potential nuclear deal. The Biden administration has taken some direct action against Iranian proxy groups, including airstrikes in late February against the Syrian base of the militant organization Kait’ib Hezbollah, which had targeted U.S. personnel stationed in neighboring Iraq.
Meanwhile, the presidential election in Iran has put extra pressure on the administration. With hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi widely expected to win, Iran‘s position on nuclear negotiations may change and its appetite to deal with the U.S. could diminish.
“For the Iranians, the challenge is they’ve got the elections. The question is: Can the Biden administration make concessions fast enough to beat the Iranians to their election punch, understanding that after the election things may change?” said Danielle Pletka, senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration‘s assessment is that they may be harder pressed to make a deal with the new guys.”
Iranian officials have said the nuclear negotiations are proceeding no matter who wins the election and that the next president would respect any deal reached in Geneva.
“The nuclear file is a national dossier that is being advanced with consensus in the Islamic republic, is unrelated to domestic developments and is being pursued by the governing organizations, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters in Tehran last week.
Ms. Pletka and other critics argue that the administration‘s willingness to let virtually all other issues slide is driving the U.S. negotiating strategy.
“One of the things the administration has signaled to the Iranians is … ‘We are never going to comingle anything else you do with the nuclear accords,’” she said. “‘We don’t care what you do. … We are not going to let that interfere with our desperate desire to get a nuclear deal.’”
On Capitol Hill, top Republican lawmakers have demanded that Congress review — and approve or deny — any U.S. nuclear deal with Tehran.