Biden’s First Unforced Blunder
Even before Inauguration Day, then president-elect Joe Biden had already made his first unforced diplomatic blunder, expressing his eagerness to return to the discredited JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps because they remembered how they had manipulated Barack Obama and his almost comically inept negotiator, John Kerry, the Iranians were ready for this announcement: They would allow the US to return, if Biden fulfilled certain conditions Iran would set.
The JCPOA has been in effect for five years, and there is ample evidence that Iran has cheated on all its obligations under it. Iran recently announced that it had enriched uranium to 20%, above the 3.67% allowed by the deal, and stockpiled twelve times the allowed quantity of enriched uranium, even though they are still obligated to the other JCPOA signatories not to do so.
The fundamental problem when Obama pursued the Iran deal was that he didn’t understand why Iran wanted nuclear weapons, and thus fooled himself into believing they would relinquish their goal if he asked them nicely enough. For Obama, the objective wasn’t to end the Iranian nuclear program but to demonstrate that he was more capable than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, both of whom had sought to negotiate an end to the program before recognizing that it was hopeless. Bush reportedly made 28 attempts. Knowing that Obama had committed to securing a deal, and thus could not afford to walk away, the Iranians played him for all he was worth. That is their model for dealing with Biden.
It is important to understand, however, that none of the factors that apply to other nuclear weapons efforts apply to Iran.
America began its Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons in response to a letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt warning that the Nazis were working on a nuclear weapon. The Soviet Union developed one to balance the United States. Britain and France were next, in case NATO didn’t work out. China got nuclear weapons in response to the Soviets, then India responded to China, and Pakistan to India. North Korea developed nuclear weapons to protect its controlling dynasty from the rest of the world. Israel’s reported arsenal serves a kind of “Sampson” function: If the country was about to be destroyed, it would use them to attack its enemies.
The strategy that has kept the nuclear peace is known as MAD, for Mutual Assured Destruction: faced with the prospect that its own society would be destroyed if it resorted to nuclear weapons, no country, or rational leader, would contemplate doing so.
MAD emerged from studies of how these weapons might be used and ways to stop their proliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) guaranteed states that they would not be subjected to nuclear blackmail by others who had these weapons, an effort that worked reasonably well until Iran.
This is because the Iranian mullahs see themselves on an eschatological mission — as expressed by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — to create enough chaos to force Allah to reveal the “hidden imam,” who is basically the Shi’ite messiah. Nuclear weapons are their path to redemption, so they will use them in an offensive way; making them the first, and so far only, country seeking to acquire them with this intent. Nor does MAD deter Iran’s leaders: the prospect of their country being destroyed is actually an incentive for them.
This may sound deranged to us, but the mullahs believe it. The results of their acquiring and using nuclear weapons will be very real regardless of whether Allah allows himself to be coerced.
The only serious approaches to preventing Iran from acquiring these weapons have always been a military strike on their nuclear facilities, which will at best delay their acquisition, and the overthrow of the regime, which is encouraged by imposing serious economic sanctions. The JCPOA ended those sanctions, thus ensuring the survival of the regime, while simultaneously providing Iran with billions of dollars that it has used to expand its global terrorist network; fund ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere; and develop ICBMs to launch nuclear weapons at the United States. In return for these goodies, the Iranians were prepared to agree not to attack until after Obama’s term ended.
Recognizing that he couldn’t get the approval required by the Constitution for a treaty, Obama inverted the process by challenging the Senate to turn it down, and then asserted party discipline to ensure that they did not. The result was one of the worst agreements any government has ever made.
Trump abandoned the deal, which he could not have done if Obama had obtained ratification by the Senate, and imposed harsh sanctions. Iran-watchers believe the country’s economy is on the brink of collapse, which should lead to the end of the regime, and thus to the end of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its efforts to bring about the apocalypse.
Biden has effectively announced that he intends to bail out the regime, and is even willing to pay a price for the privilege. The intelligent thing to do was to wait until Iran approached him to ask that the US return to the agreement and end the sanctions.
Instead, Biden may have thrown away the one chance we have of preventing nuclear war.
Yale Zussman worked on arms control while in graduate school at MIT.