Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, the winner will face a foreign policy issue that has plagued seven U.S. presidents -Iran. Over four decades, a wide range of approaches has failed to deter the mullahs from becoming the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and reaching the threshold of joining the community of nuclear-armed nations.
These failed approaches have included playing hardball and softball. The former seeks to isolate Tehran economically; the latter to convince a Shiite-majority Iran to “share the neighborhood” in a “Sunni-dominated” Middle East. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) approach, negotiated during Barack Obama’s watch and abandoned by that of Donald Trump, may have succeeded in delaying Tehran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons but it by no means stopped it.
The last two U.S. administrations have used “good cop” and “bad cop” approaches that created an Iranian roller-coaster economy. The mullahs viewed the Obama-Joe Biden administration as a good cop for infusing Iran’s economy with cash (while also funding its terrorist proxies). The Trump administration is clearly viewed as a bad cop focused on shutting down as much of Iran’s economy as possible. Neither approach has greatly deterred Iran, so it is evident that changes must be made.
For the Iranian people, the current economic depression is becoming intolerable. U.S. sanctions have forced the Rial to its lowest value ever. Inflation and the cost of staples are skyrocketing. Mass protests plague the country, registering discontent with the regime at a level not seen since the Shah was toppled. And, as if a collapsing economy were not enough, COVID-19 deaths have hit with a vengeance, totaling more than 116,000.
The mullahs’ Gestapo-like domestic forces are keeping a cap on the turmoil at home, but the question of how much longer they can do it looms. Domestic unrest surely has the mullahs’ attention, leaving the next U.S. president in the best negotiating position of any in the last 40 years. But it cannot be certain that the belligerent mullah regime will negotiate at all, recognizing it lacks a winning hand.
At the most, we can expect the mullahs to make promises they have no intention of keeping. At the least, the mullahs will reject negotiations and seek help from allies like Russia and China. This means that if the next president can negotiate, he must create a deal closing JCPOA’s loopholes with verification and stiff penalties for violations. If he cannot negotiate, he must then be prepared to confront an Iran-Russia-China axis.
In either case, the U.S. must show strength by carrying a big military stick and demonstrating a willingness to use it if Iran makes trouble. The days of ignoring Iran’s aggressive acts while JCPOA talks were underway must not be repeated. Joint military exercises with Israel and other Middle East allies should be undertaken, demonstrating U.S. resolve – a resolve that includes refusing to cancel them as a prerequisite for talks. This is particularly important as our regional presence diminishes. Each and every aggressive Iranian action must be met with an equal and opposite reaction. That also means holding Tehran accountable for the acts of its proxies.
JCPOA was never the right ship to sail to provide an “end all” means of protecting the world from a nuclear-armed Iran. That ship was full of leaks. It allowed Tehran to develop a missile program capable of carrying nuclear warheads; it created caps on uranium and plutonium that were easily reversed; it allowed the mullahs to develop advanced weapons after five years, and it failed to ban Iran from nuclear weapons research with North Korea. The JCPOA was an invitation to secretly violate a deal the West could not monitor – and Iran did just that. The next president should show the diplomatic door is open, but there are no free rides upon entering.
If Biden is President in 2021 and wants to return to the JCPOA, he must ensure its many leaks are plugged. He cannot waste Iran’s dire economic crisis by granting numerous benefits upfront, as did the JCPOA. He needs to remember there is not a single international agreement to date that the mullahs have honored. He has to play hardball, as anything less will create a perception of American weakness. An indication Biden will reduce Trump’s “maximum pressure” as an inducement to talk invites Tehran to dig in its heels for a JCPOA-like deal that provides wiggle room or cover to cheat. Other areas, developed since JCPOA in which Iran threatens U.S. security, such as intercontinental missiles and an ambitious satellite program, must also be included in any deal.
The Never-Ending Story is a film about a young boy trying to save a fantasy world from destruction. Our next president will have his hands full trying to save the existing world from the threat an unbridled nuclear-armed Iran presents.