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Dealing with Iran: Will Joe Biden be the new Jimmy Carter?

Dealing with Iran: Will Joe Biden be the new Jimmy Carter?
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When Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats MORE was inaugurated in January, several key foreign policy issues topped his to-do list: Rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, tick. Rejoin the World Health Organization, tick. End the Muslim travel ban, tick. Rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) – well, actually, no tick. 

Leaving the last box unticked was not surprising. Unlike the other quick-tick boxes, the Iran deal is a risky business fraught with strong competing positions inside and outside Congress. Risk management was, it was argued by Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense: Biden officially rolls out Afghanistan withdrawal plan | Probe finds issues with DC Guard helicopter use during June protests NATO will match US timeline to pull troops out of Afghanistan Indirect talks with Iran over nuclear deal to resume Thursday MORE and others in the Cabinet, a better way forward than risk-taking. Where was the pain, or the gain, to justify quick action on a foreign affairs issue? Domestic crises — the stimulus, the vaccine roll-out, the U.S.-Mexico border — commanded the top tier of Biden’s list. Iran would have to wait. Better first to confer with allies in the Middle East and Europe. 

Yet, as President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterBiden: Between a rocket and a hard place? Dealing with Iran: Will Joe Biden be the new Jimmy Carter? G. Gordon Liddy, central figure in Watergate scandal, dies at 90 MORE discovered more than 40 years ago as he focussed on containing the highest inflation rate the U.S. has seen in 50 years, hesitating on Iran policy proved disastrous. It was a decision that defined the legacy of his presidency.  

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Like Biden today, Carter found himself caught in a vice between international reputation abroad and threats to his government at home. At the time, the deposed shah’s supporters, including Kissinger, clamored to ensure that the U.S. rejected Iran’s revolutionary Islamic leaders; when Europeans lined up to present their credentials to the new government in 1979, Carter’s envoys were not among them. Pressure from regional allies such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, raised questions about the value of American friendship, a point Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party’s aspiring presidential candidate, made at every opportunity according to Carter’s memoirs. Risk preparedness seemed best served by a go-slow policy designed, it was hoped, to build leverage. Lost on Carter and his deeply divided Cabinet was that decisiveness grounded in national interest and legal principles, is the prerogative of great power — as President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE proved in 2017 when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Indecisiveness and drift led Carter to accept the shah into the U.S. for medical treatment without informing the Iranian government — a decision framed in moral terms as a test of American character and oddly reminiscent of the debate around rejoining the JCPOA today. Insufficient intel meant Carter was unaware the shah’s arrival coincided with Iranian Shia’s most holy day of the year according to Michael M.J. Fischer’s, “Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution.” And when the U.S. embassy hostages were seized, U.S. inaction led to a standoff which even the Iranian student-organizers of the embassy takeover didn’t expect to last beyond 24 hours per Carter's memoirs, but which stretched to 444 days. 

As Carter discovered, some foreign policy decisions can eclipse even the most compelling domestic issues — and Biden is facing just such a test. Had the new president acted when he proclaimed that “America is back” and “we are committed to rejoining the Iran nuclear deal,” — Iran’s nuclear program would be winding down by now and negotiators would be drawing up plans to discuss extending the deal’s ungainly sunset clauses, missile containment and regional security.

Instead, trust has frayed, and two months of drift has led to unrelieved sanctions on Iran, while none of our allies — whether in Europe, the Gulf or Israel — now quite believe Biden is committed to the deal. Certainly Iran doesn’t think so: As it ramps up nuclear output, hardline candidates for its presidential election in June point to the country’s emergence from its Trump-induced recession and a new 25-year deal with China as offering Iran a future the West never could. Perhaps most worrying, for the first time, Iranian leaders are indicating that the fatwa against developing nuclear weapons should be reconsidered.

Biden’s indecision has led to a hardening on both sides and a sharp increase in insecurity in the Gulf. It has undercut Washington’s international standing — much as Carter’s indecision did 40 years ago. Iran undoubtedly is in breach of the terms of the nuclear deal but remains inside it. The U.S. is in greater breach for having left it — there being no provisions in the United Nations resolution, which President Obama signed, for any signatory to withdraw. By failing to rejoin immediately, Biden is allowing American propensity to override international law when it doesn’t suit U.S. policy, to discomfort the very allies he’s currently trying to court. 

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Even more important, in deciding not to rejoin the JCPOA immediately, Biden has ignored a fundamental U.S. principle and national security interest: to contain nuclear proliferation as a responsibility of international leadership. The JCPOA is, first and foremost, a nuclear verification system. It does one thing very well, and in that it is a good deal. It ensures the International Atomic Energy Association, or IAEA, can be on the ground at any time with no notice, verifying that Iran’s program is minimal and contained and unable to devolve into weaponization. The deal means no one — not the U.S., the U.N., Israel, Saudi Arabia or anyone else — has to trust Iran; the JCPOA makes trusting Iran irrelevant. 

Having waited this long to get back into the deal, the Biden team may be calculating that the timing is no longer right for its critical midterm elections or, after that, the next round of presidential elections. It may be worried that several of the sunset clauses make the deal “as is” unworkable. But the bottom line is, none of this matters if Iran builds a bomb and a war breaks out in the Gulf, with Israel fulfilling its promises to attack the installations, spreading nuclear fallout across the region and into Europe and a closed Hormuz Strait disrupts global trade infinitely more severely than did the brief shutdown of the Suez Canal ten days ago. Such a war would eclipse any domestic crisis and mark Biden’s reputation as surely as the hostage crisis marked Carter’s. 

Rejoining the JCPOA is a proliferation issue, regardless of how dire the short-term domestic political costs may seem. Only by acting now with grit and decisiveness, as talks in Vienna hint at new negotiations, will the U.S. show it is “back” as the international leader the world needs — and a principled one. Time is not on Biden’s side. He must take decisive control now of this most pressing foreign policy threat to ensure his reputation will not be marred by Iran, as Carter’s was.  

Roxane Farmanfarmaian teaches international politics at the University of Cambridge and is a Middle East expert specializing in U.S.-Iran relations. Previously a journalist, she is the author of “Blood and Oil: A Prince’s Memoir of Iran From the Shah to the Ayatollah,” and a regular commentator for the news media. Follow her on Twitter @roxanefarma.