Biden’s words make war with Iran more likely

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  July 16, 2022

Joe Biden’s chilling statements to an Israeli TV interviewer, including that he is prepared to use military force against Iran, present a grim outlook for reviving the Iran deal.

Joe Biden sat down for a wide-ranging interview with an Israeli television station. In it, there were two chilling statements regarding Iran. When asked if he was prepared to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal (or JCPOA) if the only way to close the deal was to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) he said, simply, “Yes.” And when asked if he was prepared to use military force against Iran, he responded, “As a last resort, yes.”

That was not good enough for Acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, but it was a very grim assessment of the chances of reaching a deal with Iran.

VIDEO : Joe Biden’s full interview with Israeli Channel 12 news anchor Yonit Levi :

Biden’s words make war with Iran more likely – Mondoweiss

Lapid, speaking at a joint press conference with Biden in Jerusalem on Thursday, said “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table. It should not be a bluff, but the real thing. The Iranian regime must know that if they continue to deceive the world, they will pay a heavy price.”

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had much the same message for Biden. “We’ve been friends for 40 years,” he said, “but to ensure the next 40 years, we must deal with the Iranian threat. There must be a credible offensive military option. I told him the [JCPOA] deal is lousy. He knows my position… I told him that with no credible military option, Iran won’t be stopped. If Iran isn’t deterred, that military option has to be used.”

Biden continued to say that he preferred a diplomatic resolution. “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome,” he said. He would be well advised to remember that the events of the past seven years have proven that diplomacy does work, while belligerence produces exactly the opposite effect. 

But Biden’s policies and his approach to the entire question of the Iran deal have not reflected any such understanding. While his administration has been engaging in discussions with Iran and the P5+1 (the group that negotiated the JCPOA in 2015, which consists of the U.S., UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany) from the beginning of his term, there was a distinct lack of urgency. As a result, the window of opportunity to strike a deal with the relatively friendly government of Mohammed Khatami slipped away. 

The new hardline Iranian government of Ebrahim Raisi needed to show that they were holding a stronger line with the United States than their predecessors, but on the whole, their demands didn’t change much in the early days. They gradually advanced their defiance of the JCPOA, entirely in response to the United States abrogating it. But unlike the U.S. they never formally left the agreement, merely countered the sanctions and aggression by the United States by moving further with their nuclear work and reducing their cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

As time dragged on, Iran became increasingly reluctant to re-enter the JCPOA. Perhaps the greatest obstacle has been that Iran has no reason to believe that the U.S. would honor a deal struck by Biden should Republicans win back control of Congress in the midterms, or worse, the White House in 2024.

Still, the Raisi government continued the difficult, often strained, talks. Eventually, one proposal was that the Biden administration remove the IRGC from the State department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. 

In practice, removing the IRGC from the FTO would have virtually no impact. There are enough other sanctions in place to ensure that nothing would change with the removal, just as nothing changed when Trump put Iran on the list in 2019. But removing Iran creates significant problems politically, and this was the point of Trump’s move; to plant a “poison pill” for any future administrations that might want to negotiate with Iran.

Even for those U.S. officials who thought listing the IRGC was a mistake, it is an entirely different matter, politically, to remove them from the list. Such removal will be attacked, however disingenuously, both domestically and by U.S. Mideast allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as another example of U.S. unreliability. And, given the very negative reputation the IRGC has, it will certainly be a criticism that hits the Biden administration hard.

Trump’s poison pill is working exactly as intended. The Biden administration sees Iran’s demand to de-list the IRGC as being disconnected from the nuclear issue. Iran correctly understands that the listing was done to prevent progress on the nuclear issue. Biden understands, correctly, that he will face intense backlash if he de-lists the IRGC, further complicating the already fraught politics around Iran. 

Biden’s decision to reject de-listing the IRGC, though, is just one more step in what has been a bungled process from the beginning. Biden’s whole approach to the talks has been about Iran proving itself. This is foolhardy; even Trump’s own people acknowledged, when Trump broke the deal, that Iran had been in compliance. 

Indeed, it was the U.S. that never fully complied with the deal, even under Obama. Part of the U.S. commitment was to encourage investment, and certainly to refrain from discouraging it, in Iran. Yet, from the moment the deal was struck, U.S. leaders discouraged investment in Iran, a direct violation of the agreement. Indeed, all a bank president or corporate CEO had to do was see the furious debate that lingered after the deal was struck to be put off from dealing with Iran, lest sanctions be put back in place, as they were. 

Thanks to the abrogation of the JCPOA by Trump, Iran is closer to a nuclear device than it has ever been. That was inevitable, and the known consequence of leaving the deal. The inescapable conclusion is that the anti-Iran hawks, whether in Washington, Riyadh, or Jerusalem, want a war of regime change, not a viable, functional nuclear deal. Biden isn’t part of that group, but he has fallen almost deliberately into their traps and, with his declaration that he will go to war if diplomacy fails, he is furthering their cause. 

It’s also important to note that, despite western rhetoric, it remains unclear that Iran actually wants a nuclear weapon. They had not been developing one since 2003, and even now, and have proceeded toward one only in response to the “maximum pressure” campaign that the Trump administration began and the Biden administration has continued without interruption or mitigation.

On Iran’s side, despite their efforts, they may not actually want a nuclear weapon, but rather the capacity to build one. So-called nuclear latent states are states that can produce a nuclear weapon in a relatively short time. Given that Iran’s two main adversaries—the United States and Israel—are both nuclear powers, it’s hard to argue that such a desire is irrational. 

While Israel is pushing Biden toward war, the Saudis have been more reserved. Although they, too, bitterly opposed the JCPOA, they were less enthusiastic than Israel about Trump breaking it. Since April 2021, Iraq has been facilitating talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an eye toward rapprochement between the two oil-producing adversaries. The process has been slow, but steady. While Riyadh would surely still like to see a widespread change in Iran, they would suffer far more than Israel or the U.S. in a war. They’re clearly not opposed to American and Israeli belligerence toward Iran, but they are not as enthusiastic about war, especially since they can’t be sure how much the U.S. and Israel would look after Saudi interests.

All of this leaves us right where Biden described it to Israel’s Channel 12.

The U.S. is not going to take the steps it needs to for the JCPOA to advance, and Iran is very wary of re-entering the deal without some way to ensure the U.S. won’t break it again. Iran will not push for a war that would cost them enormously and that they would be unlikely to win. But they are also unwilling to accept American diktats and have every reason to want a deterrent against two nuclear-armed foes who both talk about attacks on the Islamic Republic. 

A president with any courage, a clear-eyed assessment of global needs, and who would treat war in the Persian Gulf as a red line they would not want to cross could find the diplomatic solution Biden seems to prefer. But Biden fails on every count of being that president, as his Mideast trip conclusively proved. That means a grim outlook for reviving the Iran deal. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics