How Biden Could Avoid Obama’s Biggest Iran Mistake

Bookmark

In March 2015, as nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world powers entered the home stretch, 47 Republican senators wrote an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warning that a future president could revoke any deal signed by President Barack Obama “with the stroke of a pen.” Since Obama was negotiating without congressional approval, the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would be only an executive agreement, subject to alteration or abrogation.

The warning was ignored. The lead Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who claimed an acute understanding of American politics, made no effort to engage with the Republicans. The other negotiating powers, their eyes on the billions of dollars in anticipated trade deals with the Islamic Republic, pretended not to notice that Obama was acting without the imprimatur of the Senate.

At home, the GOP senators were accused of treason for having gone over the president’s head. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry brushed off objections from the other side of the aisle and made the deal, declaring they had achieved peace for our time.

And the signatories all affected shock and horror three years later, when the next president did exactly as the senators had predicted, pulling the U.S. out of the agreement with the stroke of a pen.

The letter has been forgotten, along with the lesson. Joe Biden, now aspiring to Obama’s office, is proposing to bring the U.S. back into the JCPOA if Iran returns to compliance. Since Trump’s withdrawal, Tehran has ratcheted up uranium enrichment, and now has a stockpile 10 times the limit set in the agreement.

In an op-ed about his Iran policy, the Democratic candidate says he “will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” and use that “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Like his former boss, Biden seems to think he can do this by executive fiat, which is the more remarkable, coming from a man with his legislative experience.

There is no acknowledgment in Biden’s op-ed about the Republican objections, much less an effort to address them. It is as if Trump, and Trump alone, was the reason why the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA.

This misconception is not limited to the Biden campaign. The other signatories — and especially the European trio of Britain, France and Germany — seem to hold the same view. In London, Paris and Berlin, fingers are tightly crossed in the hope that Trump will lose to Biden on Nov. 3, reviving the hopes of billion-dollar deals with the theocrats in Tehran.

The Iranians, too, are rooting for a Biden victory: The regime has reportedly instructed its proxy militias in Iraq to cut down on their rocket attacks against American targets, to deprive Trump of an issue around which he can rally support. Iran’s online influence operations, too, are directed at defeating the president.

Under other circumstances, Republicans in Congress might have used this moment to fire off another open letter, this time to Biden, as a reminder of their objections to the JCPOA and to serve notice that they will fight any effort to return to the deal. But to issue such a warning would be to acknowledge the possibility of Trump losing the election; given his fragile ego, no GOP grandee would dare suggest it.

There is, of course, always the chance that Biden and the Democrats can attain the trifecta: the presidency and majorities in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. In that case, the new president could conceivably get congressional approval to bring the U.S. back into the nuclear deal, giving it the weight of a treaty rather than a mere executive agreement.

But it would be good for all the parties — Biden, the Europeans and the Iranians — to be reminded that resistance to the JCPOA runs deep in American politics. Ignoring that reality brought us to this sorry pass. That mistake should not be repeated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.