- - Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The White House’s latest plan to improve its messaging on the Iran Nuclear Deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) is to heap the blame for the untenable situation on President Biden’s predecessor.

As the eighth round of indirect negotiations in Vienna nears conclusion, the Biden administration has begun emotionally preparing fellow Democrats for the possibility of either a less-than-stellar arrangement with the regime or the prospect of a renewed pressure campaign against Tehran. Neither is a desirable outcome — the former ensures dangerous concessions to the mullahs while the latter admits political defeat after months of showboating regarding the diplomatic capabilities of Team Biden.

The good news? There is someone else to blame.

According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, if former President Donald Trump hadn’t “recklessly pulled out of the nuclear deal,” none of the behaviors we’re witnessing from the Iranian regime, including “aggressive actions that they’ve taken through proxy wars around the world,” would be occurring. This statement is patently false and evinces the depth to which the Biden administration fundamentally either does not understand the threat posed by Iran or, for political reasons, cannot concede that any acts taken by Mr. Biden’s predecessor were prudent or appropriate. 

Throughout the United States’ membership in the Iran Nuclear Deal and even before the deal’s conclusion, Iran engaged in nefarious activities, terrorism, advanced weapons and ballistic missile development, and proxy conflicts. What we are witnessing today does not represent a collapse of Iranian behavioral norms but rather a continuation of the same actions that supposedly justified the woefully insufficient Iran Nuclear Deal initially. 

Indeed, within months of concluding the Iran Nuclear Deal — which allegedly “contained” Iran’s nuclear program — Iran engaged in a ballistic missile test in violation of paragraph 9 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. The Emad launch not only was an embarrassment for the Obama administration but also represented precisely the Iranian bad faith of which Iran Deal skeptics had warned.

Because the JCPOA contained no restrictions on such ballistic missiles yet intended to do away with the very U.N. sanctions that did, the Emad launch provided a small window into what a future Iran — unencumbered by U.N. mandates — might do.

Worse yet, sanctions relief funded the regime’s project of exporting the Islamic Revolution across the broader Middle East, causing truly destabilizing consequences.

With the aid of sanctions relief specifically provided by the JCPOA, Iran was instantly able to better fund its numerous proxy conflicts across the greater Middle East. Indeed, within the first six months of the JCPOA, Iran gained access to $4.2 billion in assets and increased its export earnings by $7 billion. In 2017, foreign direct investment into Iran increased by nearly 50%, while imports grew by roughly 40% between 2015 and 2017. 

It’s no surprise that the Iranian government spent its newfound cash on more illicit adventures in the region, including funneling billions of dollars to regimes inimical to the United States, as well as to terrorist proxies. In 2015, Bashar al-Assad allegedly received $15 billion in aid from Tehran, while Hezbollah is rumored to be the continued recipient of $700 million in aid each year from the Iranian regime. Hezbollah put the money to use right away — in the past 10 years, Hezbollah has participated in military campaigns in four different countries, including Syria.

Meanwhile, since the Saudi incursion into Yemen in 2015, the Houthis — another terrorist proxy — have increasingly relied on Iranian support, which has consisted of complicated smuggling and procurement networks for providing the Houthis with weapons parts. There have also been reports that Iran increasingly uses Yemen as an outpost to ship weapons to Sudan, then to Egypt, and finally to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, within months of the JCPOA’s conclusion, Tehran was reportedly shipping suitcases of cash to Hamas in anticipation of sanctions relief. 

While the JCPOA threw an economic lifeline to the regime, the people of Iran were left to suffer. Even after the reimposition of sanctions in 2018, a majority of Iranians felt that the renewed economic decline was more a product of corruption and mismanagement than of sanctions. 

With regards to Ms. Psaki’s comments, Iran was adeptly deceiving Western powers on the state of its nuclear program for years before the JCPOA. Roughly 11,000 documents and files, seized from Iran’s nuclear archives by the Israelis in 2018, indicated that by 2003, Iran had not dismantled its nuclear weapons program but had merely decentralized it to appease weak Western oversight. In other words, Iran’s nuclear weapons program was much more advanced than the international community had anticipated in the days preceding the implementation of the JCPOA.

In short, Iran has a long rap sheet of lying to Western powers and violating legally binding treaty commitments and U.N. Security Council Resolutions while engaging in nefarious activities.

Iran has continued its bad behavior since the U.S. exit — including exceeding limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, developing more advanced centrifuges beyond what is permitted by the JCPOA, renewing the production of heavy water at the Arak facility, and enriching uranium far above the JCPOA’s authorized limit of 3.67% at its Fordow facility.

But the Biden administration cannot and should not pretend that any of this behavior is novel or unexpected — or worse yet, deserving of sanctions relief via U.S. reentry into the JCPOA. 

For its own purposes, the Biden administration has to cast Tehran’s nefarious activities as a new phenomenon within the Iranian saga —the result of Trumpian foolishness — and not merely endemic to the corrupt regime itself. But those with a scintilla of knowledge of the regime recognize that its latest machinations are merely a continuation of its prior behaviors rather than a newfound swivel.

As the adage goes, when someone shows you who he is, believe him. The Biden administration would be wise to follow this axiom instead of denying reality to safeguard vestiges of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

This isn’t a post-Trump Iranian regime. This is the Iranian regime.

• David S. Jonas is a partner at FH+H law firm in Tysons, Virginia. He served as nuclear nonproliferation planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and general counsel of two federal agencies. He teaches Nuclear Nonproliferation Law & Policy at Georgetown and George Washington University law schools. Erielle Davidson is the associate director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

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