U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley confirmed this week that the Biden administration is seeking a new nuclear deal with Iran that is "shorter" and "weaker" than the original deal. Malley also admitted that the Biden administration does not have a back-up plan to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Pictured: Malley, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has confirmed that diplomatic efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal originally signed by U.S. President Barack Obama are at an impasse. "We do not have a deal with Iran, and prospects for reaching one are, at best, tenuous," Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on May 25.
Malley also admitted that the Biden administration is seeking a new deal that is "shorter" and "weaker" than the original deal. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his confirmation hearing in January 2021, promised that the administration would pursue a new deal that is "longer" and "stronger."
When asked if he knew about efforts by Iran to hide its prior nuclear work from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Malley responded: "Senator, did Iran lie? Of course. Did Iran have a covert nuclear program? Absolutely. That's the reason why prior administrations imposed such crushing sanctions on Iran."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked: "Why is it that we are still keeping the door open? What is your Plan B?" Malley admitted that the Biden administration does not have a back-up plan to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The negotiations to revive the 2015 agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been stalled since March 2022. The main stumbling block to a final deal is Iran's demand that the Biden administration delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
U.S. President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions because the deal gave Iran a pathway to nuclear weapons. In April 2019, the Trump administration designated the IRGC and its elite Quds attack force as an FTO because of Tehran's support for terrorist activities. In March 2020, Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, pledged to rejoin the 2015 deal if he were elected president.
Although the Biden administration says it has no intention of delisting the IRGC, it has repeatedly lifted sanctions to coax Iran back to the negotiating table. Political observers say there is no reason to believe Biden would not make more concessions if it meant saving the deal — and President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy.
On April 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "the only way I could see the FTO being lifted is if Iran takes steps necessary to justify the lifting of that designation. So it knows what it would have to do in order to see that happen." He also argued, however, that the FTO designation "does not really gain you much" and may do more harm than good.
On May 25, Malley appeared to say that delisting the IRGC was still a possibility: "We've made clear to Iran that if they wanted any concession on something that was unrelated to the JCPOA like the FTO designation, we need something reciprocal from them that would address our concerns. I think Iran has made the decision that it's not prepared to take the reciprocal steps."
On May 4, the United States Senate passed a non-binding motion prohibiting the Biden administration from revoking the IRGC's designation as an FTO. The resolution, which passed by a vote of 62-33, with 16 Democrats voting in favor, also called for any potential return to the JCPOA to address the "full range of Iran's destabilizing activities, including development of the means of delivery for such weapons (and ballistic missiles), support for terrorism and evasion of sanctions by individuals, entities and vessels in the trade of petroleum products with the People's Republic of China."
The Biden administration has not fixed many of the original deal's main flaws, especially so-called sunset provisions that would have lifted restrictions on Iran's nuclear enrichment program by 2031 or sooner.
Like the original, the revised deal is weak on verification, does not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, and fails to address Iran's ballistic missile program. It also turns a blind eye to the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Why would the Biden administration agree to a revised deal that does not prevent or contain Iran's nuclear program, and actually reduces the so-called breakout time required for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon?
Why would the Biden administration, or the Obama administration before it, agree to a deal that provides Iran with a clear pathway to nuclear weapons as restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium processing end between 2026 and 2031?
Many analysts argue that the nuclear deal — original and revised — is primarily about legitimizing Iran's nuclear program. The deal, they say, is designed to strengthen, not weaken, the Islamic Republic.
Picking Up Where Obama Left Off
Statements by Obama and his senior foreign policy advisors, the same people who are now advising President Biden, reflect a belief — a naïve one, many say — that if Iran were stronger, and traditional American allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were weaker, the Middle East could achieve a new balance of power that would result in more peaceful region.
One of the first previews of Obama's Iran policy was in an October 2013 opinion article — "Obama's Diplomatic Opportunity" — published by The Washington Post. Columnist David Ignatius (once described as someone Obama used as a "public messaging instrument") wrote that Obama wanted to "create a new framework for security in the Middle East that involves Iran and defuses the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict threatening the region."
Ignatius compared Obama's Iran policy to "the way President Richard Nixon (with Henry Kissinger) shaped the opening to China in the early 1970s and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (with Brent Scowcroft and James Baker) managed the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s." He added:
"In the world that's ahead, Iran must temper its revolutionary dreams of 1979, just as Saudi Arabia must stop hyperventilating about the 'Shiite crescent.' What's around the corner is a new regional framework that accommodates the security needs of Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Russians and Americans."
In a January 2014 interview with The New Yorker, Obama said that his ultimate goal was "a new equilibrium" in the Middle East between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam:
"If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there's competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare."
In an April 2015 Politico article — "Why I Like the Iran Deal (Sort Of)" — Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote:
"A nuclear deal would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Détente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide."
In an April 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Obama called for Saudi Arabia to "share the neighborhood" with Iran:
"The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace. An approach that said to our friends, 'You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran' would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East."
A short time later, Obama's former Middle East Advisor Philip Gordon wrote that "greater engagement between Iran and its current adversaries could ultimately contribute to some sort of positive domestic change and a regional modus vivendi."
Modus vivendi is a Latin phrase — modus means "way," vivendi means "of living" — meaning an agreement between those who differ in opinions ("agreeing to disagree"). The term is "sometimes used to refer to a preliminary, provisional, or interim agreement between contending parties pending the final settlement," according to Oxford University Press.
In other words, Gordon was saying, apparently, that Israel and the Sunni Muslim world would have to learn to live with a more aggressive and powerful Iran.
U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley was appointed to the position on January 28, 2021, after having served in the same capacity under President Barack Obama. He was closely involved with negotiating the original Iran nuclear deal.
In a December 2019 Foreign Affairs essay, Malley wrote that Obama's "ultimate goal" was to achieve a "more stable balance of power" in the Middle East. He also lashed out at Trump's support for traditional American allies:
"In a sense, his [Obama's] administration was an experiment that got suspended halfway through. At least when it came to his approach to the Middle East, Obama's presidency was premised on the belief that someone else would pick up where he left off. It was premised on his being succeeded by someone like him, maybe a Hillary Clinton, but certainly not a Donald Trump.
"Instead of striving for some kind of balance, Trump has tilted entirely to one side: doubling down on support for Israel.... withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and zealously joining up with the region's anti-Iranian axis. Indeed, seeking to weaken Iran, Washington has chosen to confront it on all fronts across much of the region: in the nuclear and economic realms...."
In a May 2020 Foreign Affairs essay — "America's Opportunity in the Middle East" — Jake Sullivan, who is now National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, argued that the United States should use its leverage to achieve "a new modus vivendi" among the key regional actors in the Middle East. Sullivan, whose secret meetings with Iranian officials during the Obama administration led to the 2015 nuclear agreement, also criticized "maximalist regional demands" by Israel and Saudi Arabia to constrain Iran's nuclear program.
In a June 2020 interview — "U.S. Grand Strategy in the Middle East" — with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sullivan again called for "a rebalance or recalibration" away from traditional American allies in the Middle East. He also said that he believes that Israel and Iran are morally equivalent:
"I think Israelis across the board genuinely believe that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. I think Iranians across the board, at least in the government, believe that Israel really is trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic."
Sullivan placed strict conditions on the America's future relationship with Saudi Arabia, but he did not hold Iran to the same standard:
"Our strategic dialogue with Saudi Arabia, having at the highest levels a consistent message that says that the strength of our relationship will depend on progress, on questions related to human rights and political and economic reform....
"Now, can we move Saudi Arabia from where it is now to where we want it to be on a political and human rights basis overnight? No. But should we basically say, 'In part, our long-term support for your country is going to be bound up in the directionality of progress and reform?' I think we should....
"We are going to need more shows of some progress on the political front in order for the current leadership in Saudi Arabia to establish credibility...."
The Iran nuclear deal has variously been described as a "cornerstone" of Obama's legacy, Obama's "signature foreign policy initiative" and Obama's "prize foreign policy win."
Anglo-American author Toby Harden, in a Sunday Times article — "Obama All Out for Iran Deal" — wrote that Obama wanted the Iran nuclear deal to secure his legacy as one of the giants in global diplomatic history:
"Both present and former American officials describe Obama as being obsessed with carving his mark on history by restoring diplomatic relations with Iran after decades of animosity and possibly even visiting Tehran next year."
Writing for the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Yigal Carmon and Alberto Miguel Fernandez, in an essay — "Obama's Strategy of Equilibrium" — noted:
"Examining the strategy of equilibrium requires the recollection of some basic information. Within Islam's approximately 1.6 billion believers, the absolute majority — about 90% — is Sunni, while Shiites constitute only about 10%. Even in the Middle East, Sunnis are a large majority.
"What does the word 'equilibrium' mean in political terms? In view of the above stated data, the word 'equilibrium' in actual political terms means empowering the minority and thereby weakening the majority in order to progress toward the stated goal. However, the overwhelming discrepancy in numbers makes it impossible to reach an equilibrium between the two camps. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to believe that the majority would accept a policy that empowers its adversary and weakens its own historically superior status.
"Considering the above, the implications of the equilibrium strategy for the region might not be enhancing peace as the President well intends; rather, it might intensify strife and violence in the region....
"Moreover, this strategy might have adverse implications for the United States and its interests in the Sunni Muslim world: those countries that feel betrayed by the strategy might, as a result, take action against the United States....
"It is worth noting that the first Islamic State created in the Middle East in the last 50 years was not the one created in the Sunni world in 2014 and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, it was the Islamic Republic of Iran created in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and currently ruled by his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who maintains — even following the Iran deal — the mantra 'Death to America,' continues to sponsor terrorism worldwide, and commits horrific human rights violations."
Middle East analyst Lee Smith, in an October 2015 essay — "Reading Obama's Mind" — noted:
"To reach a deal, Obama decided he needed to show Iran that he was in earnest about a new beginning. That meant granting the mullahs their nuclear weapons program a few years down the road and hobbling Iran's enemies. Obama sought to weaken Israel and Saudi Arabia, America's traditional allies, not to punish them, but as part of his grand strategy for the Middle East, a 'new geopolitical equilibrium' that would bring more stability to a volatile part of the world....
"A new geopolitical equilibrium in the Middle East would rein in America's troublesome partners and bring Iran in from the cold. It was precisely because none of them liked each other that the idea was so attractive. Obama would ensure a region where there was no victor and no vanquished. This wouldn't eliminate war from the Middle East, but it would calm things down considerably and let America go home."
Middle East expert Tony Badran, in a November 2019 article — "Malley in Wonderland" — parsed Obama's realignment strategy:
"America's allies are a problem, Malley, Biden, and other Obama administration policy kingpins — starting with Obama himself — have publicly stated, because of their capacity to involve the U.S. in a costly regional entanglement with Iran. In other words, America's allies are actually our enemies. In particular, Saudi Arabia, with its reckless war in Yemen, and Israel, with its aggression against Iranian assets in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the region, represent the 'war' side of the equation — while Iran, the enemy of our allies, represents 'peace.' The U.S. has a set of choices for how to engage the region: 'diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.'
"In other words, if our allies are strong, then America should seek to weaken them until 'balance' is achieved, which will help bring about more 'peace.' If Iran were stronger, and Israel and Saudi Arabia were weaker, then peace would therefore be more likely. American policy, in the present moment at least, should therefore be to strengthen Iran at the expense of Israel and the Saudis.
"The goal of achieving 'balance' in America's posture in the Middle East is how Obama presented his strategy of realigning American interests with Iran. For Obama, it was not in America's interest to lead a regional alliance system which stands in opposition to Iran, and which therefore threatens to move the U.S. closer to war. Rebalancing away from traditional allies means moving closer to Iran, and away from the security architecture in which America had formerly been invested."
In May 2020 essay — "How Russiagate Began with Obama's Iran Deal Domestic Spying Campaign" — Lee Smith detailed Obama's obsession with threat that retired general Michael Flynn posed to his foreign policy legacy:
"Barack Obama warned his successor against hiring Michael Flynn. It was Nov. 10, 2016, just two days after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Trump told aide Hope Hicks that he was bewildered by the president's warning. Of all the important things Obama could have discussed with him, the outgoing commander in chief wanted to talk about Michael Flynn.
"The question of why Obama was so focused on Flynn is especially revealing now....
"The answer is that Obama saw Flynn as a signal threat to his legacy, which was rooted in his July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Flynn had said long before he signed on with the Trump campaign that it was a catastrophe to realign American interests with those of a terror state. And now that the candidate he'd advised was the new president-elect, Flynn was in a position to help undo the deal. To stop Flynn, the outgoing White House ran the same offense it used to sell the Iran deal — they smeared Flynn through the press as an agent of a foreign power, spied on him, and leaked classified intercepts of his conversations to reliable echo chamber allies....
"For Obama the purpose of Russiagate was simple and direct: to protect the Iran deal, and secure his legacy....
"The nature of the agreement was made plain in its 'sunset clauses.' The fact that parts of the deal restricting Iran's activities were due to expire beginning in 2020 until all restrictions were gone and the regime's nuclear program was legal, showed that it was a phony deal. Obama was simply bribing the Iranians with hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and hundreds of billions more in investment to refrain from building a bomb until he was safely gone from the White House, when the Iranian bomb would become someone else's problem. The Obama team thought that even the Israelis wouldn't dream of touching Iran's nuclear program so long as Washington vouchsafed the deal. They called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 'chickenshit.'
"If Obama was just kicking the can down the road, why did he expend so much effort to get the deal? How was it central to his legacy if it was never actually intended to stop Iran from getting the bomb? Because it was his instrument to secure an even more ambitious objective — to reorder the strategic architecture of the Middle East....
"The catch to Obama's newly inclusive 'balancing' framework was that upgrading relations with Iran would necessarily come at the expense of traditional partners targeted by Iran — like Saudi Arabia and, most importantly, Israel. Obama never said that part out loud, but the logic isn't hard to follow: Elevating your enemy to the same level as your ally means that your enemy is no longer your enemy, and your ally is no longer your ally."
In a May 2021 essay — "The Realignment" — Middle East analysts Tony Badran and Michael Doran, concluded:
"A consensus reigns inside the [Biden] administration, not just on the JCPOA but on every big question of Middle East strategy: Everyone from the president on down agrees about the need to complete what Obama started — which means that the worst is yet to come.
"Obama dreamed of a new Middle Eastern order — one that relies more on partnership with Iran....
"This project to create a new Middle Eastern order, which now spans two presidential administrations, deserves a name. The 'Obama-Biden-Malley-Blinken-Sullivan initiative' is quite a mouthful. Instead, we hereby dub it 'the Realignment.' That it should fall to us, and at this late date, to name a project on which many talented people have been working for the better part of a decade is more than a little odd. Typically, presidents launch initiatives as grand as this one with a major address, and they further embroider their vision with dozens of smaller speeches and interviews. One searches in vain for Obama's speech, 'A New Order in the Middle East.'
"Obama, it seems clear, felt his project would advance best with stealth and misdirection, not aggressive salesmanship. Biden, while keeping Obama's second-term foreign policy team nearly intact, is using the same playbook. He and his aides recognize that confusion about the 'ultimate goal' makes achieving it easier. Indeed, confusion is the Realignment's best friend....
"Let's start with what the JCPOA does not do. Contrary to what its architects have claimed since 2015, the JCPOA does not block all the pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. How could it? The deal's so-called 'sunset provisions' — the clauses that eliminate all meaningful restrictions on Iran's nuclear program — will all have taken effect in less than a decade; some of the most significant restrictions will disappear by 2025. By 2031, the Islamic Republic will have, with international protection and assistance, an unfettered nuclear weapons program resting on an industrial-scale enrichment capability. On the basis of this fact alone, the best one can possibly say about the deal is that it buys a decade of freedom from Iranian nuclear extortion....
"The deceptions surrounding the JCPOA have a clear purpose: to make the administration appear supportive of containment when, in fact, it is ending it. But why are officials like Blinken and Sullivan so comfortable with such duplicity? Answering this question requires entering the Realignment mentality. The Foreign Affairs articles certainly offer one way in, but the most direct route is through the mind of Barack Obama, the author of the policy that Blinken and Sullivan are glossing.
"By disguising the JCPOA as a nonproliferation agreement ... the deal was a sneak attack on a traditional American foreign policy. It was and remains a Trojan horse designed to recast America's position and role in the Middle East. Sullivan and Blinken's task is to wheel the Trojan horse into the central square of American foreign policy and, by brandishing their 'centrist' political credentials, sell it as an imperfect but valuable vehicle of containment.
"The doctrine of Realignment builds on the erroneous assumption that Iran is a status quo power, one that shares a number of major interests with the United States. According to this doctrine, conservative Americans and supporters of Israel fixate on Iran's ideology — which is steeped in bigotry toward non-Muslims in general, and which advertises its annihilationist aspirations toward the Jewish state in particular — but it is not useful as a practical guide to Tehran's behavior. That's what professor Obama taught us in a 2014 interview, when he claimed that Iran's leaders "are strategic," rational people who "respond to costs and benefits" and "to incentives."
"According to the Realignment doctrine, America will help its allies protect their sovereign territory from Iranian or Iranian-backed attacks, but not compete with Iran beyond their borders. In the contested spaces of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, the United States will force others to respect Iran's "equities," a term Obama once used to describe Iran's positions of power. Thus, in practical terms, America will use its influence to elevate the interests of Iran over those of U.S. allies in key areas of the Middle East.
"Now that we can see past the cute tricks that hide the Realignment's true goals, we can state its four strategic imperatives in plain English: First, allow Tehran an unfettered nuclear weapons program by 2031; second, end the sanctions on the Iranian economic and financial system; third, implement a policy of accommodation of Iran and its tentacles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon; and fourth, force that policy on America's closest allies. If the United States follows those commandments, then a kind of natural regional balance will fall into place. The United States, so the thinking goes, will then finally remove itself from the war footing that traditional allies, with their anti-Iran agenda, have forced on it. Thereafter, diplomatic engagement with Iran will be the primary tool needed to maintain regional stability.
"The Realignment rests on, to put it mildly, a hollow theory. It misstates the nature of the Islamic Republic and the scope of its ambitions. A regime that has led 'Death to America' chants for the last 40 years is an inveterately revisionist regime. The Islamic Republic sees itself as a global power, the leader of the Muslim world, and it covets hegemony over the Persian Gulf — indeed, the entire Middle East. But the only instrument it has ever had to achieve its objectives is regional subversion.
"Ayatollah Khamenei, the head of this colossal project, is a lord of chaos. After oil, the Islamic Republic's major export item is the IRGC-commanded terrorist militia — the only export that Iran consistently produces at a peerless level. Malley and Sullivan got it exactly wrong when they argued, in effect, that allies are suckering the United States into conflict with Iran. It is not the allies but the Islamic Republic that is blanketing the Arab world with terrorist militias, arming them with precision-guided weapons, and styling the alliance it leads as 'the Resistance Axis.' It does so for one simple reason: It is out to destroy the American order in the Middle East."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.