As the Biden administration enters another round of nuclear talks with the Iranian regime in Vienna, it is clearer than ever that President Joe Biden’s conciliatory approach has failed—utterly and completely. Instead of working to adopt a new deal from a position of weakness, the Biden team should engage Congress and return to a position of strength by readopting the maximum pressure strategy pursued by the Trump administration.
We are nearly a year into the Biden administration, and Iran is closer to achieving a nuclear weapon: In April, they reached 60 percent enrichment. They’ve also produced uranium metal and are openly defying U.N. inspectors by blocking their access to nuclear sites. Egregious nuclear misconducts as such have been made only amid the Biden administration’s attempted engagement with Iran.
In addition, Iran has far more resources than it had available just a year ago to finance its nuclear program and campaign of terrorism because of the Biden administration’s refusal to enforce sanctions. In fact, Iran’s accessible exchange reserves have increased by $27 billion this year (an over 750 percent increase). Last week Iran’s Central Bank governor disclosed that the regime’s non-oil exports (largely metals and petrochemicals) increased by 45 percent in the last 8 months compared to 2020, providing the regime with $7 billion in cash.
As a result, Iran’s regional destabilization efforts are getting out of hand: Just last month, Iranian-backed militias engaged in an assassination attempt of the prime minster of Iraq; another Iranian-backed militia group launched a drone attack on an American military outpost; Iran-funded Houthi rebels in Yemen have increased their missile attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia; and, Iran has continued taking tankers and their crews hostage. Puzzlingly, Rob Malley looks at this evidence and still maintains that “most of the region’s dysfunction has roots in Iran’s exclusion.”
All the while, the Biden administration’s entire strategy seems to entail begging Iran to reenter the failed Iran nuclear agreement—or even a weaker version—with no real Plan B on what to do if talks continue to achieve no results.
The question why the Biden team chose to take up this path is inconceivable, especially when you consider how well President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign was working. After all, it nearly bankrupted the regime and reduced Iran’s foreign exchange from $120 billion in late 2017 to about $4 billion by the end of 2020, severely undercutting the regime’s ability to fund terrorist activities.
The max pressure strategy also allowed the Trump administration to reorient our security architecture and de-escalate tensions in a region historically plagued by conflict by pursuing the Abraham Accords, a historic peace agreement between Israel and a significant number of countries in North Africa and the Gulf.
As the next round of Vienna talks begins again, it’s unsurprising that Iran is demanding even more. If the Biden administration is giving Iran everything that it wants, and ignoring its nuclear escalation and regional aggression, why wouldn’t Iran ask for more? The Biden administration faces a dilemma: Reapplying pressure is the logical option, but it would be tantamount to admitting the Biden approach was wrong and Trump’s maximum pressure campaign was right. The alternative is doubling down on concessions and hoping Iran will accept reentering the failed nuclear deal, or an even worse less-restriction-for-more-sanctions-relief deal. The latter is more aligned with the Biden administration’s ideology, but a less-for-more deal would be even more counterproductive than the original JCPOA.
So, what should the Biden team do? Do what should have been done all along: Engage with Congress. Iran, reportedly, is asking the Biden administration for guarantees that the U.S. won’t reimpose sanctions in the future if they agree to a new deal with the Biden administration. The Biden team can’t make that guarantee without buy-in from Congress. And I’ll tell Tehran and the State Department right now—House conservatives will work day and night to reimpose sanctions on Iran absent an agreement that meets the 12 demands found in the Republican Study Committee’s bill, the Maximum Pressure Act, which has over 100 co-sponsors and growing. With the political pendulum likely to swing in 2022 and 2024, we will prevail.
To get a lasting deal with Tehran that will truly get them to change their behavior, the Biden administration should abandon their Vienna talks and instead seek bipartisan support in Congress. And, in turn, Congress must return to the maximum pressure strategy that was working just fine before the Biden team abandoned it.