Washington Examiner

Biden Cannot Ignore Iran

Research Fellow and Program Manager, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
mahsa amini
A boy looks on during a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to those who have died protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was killed in police custody after allegedly violating the country's hijab rules, outside the White House on October 1, 2022. (Bonnie Cash via Getty Images)

It has been four decades since the Islamic Republic of Iran declared itself as the enemy of the West and the driving force empowering militias and groups that share the mission of Western demise. The Islamic Republic has long been devoted to punishing activists, dissidents, and critics of its totalitarian aspirations, at home and abroad, through a variety of tactics. The regime issues fatwas against writers and artists, publishes children’s lullabies and songs to maintain loyalty to the ayatollahs, and even funds agents to kidnap activists, such as US resident Masih Alinejad, who has consistently refused to succumb to the regime’s demands.

The Iranian leadership has repeatedly sought to placate and quell anti-government sentiments. On September 16, the death of Mahsa Amini reignited them. The 22-year-old Amini was arrested by the regime's morality police for refusing to wear the hijab. By the time she was transferred from the police station to the hospital, she was already in a coma. Protests, demonstrations, and other forms of rebellion broke out in almost all provinces across the country. Adults and children, women and men, students and workers, all mobilized against the regime on an unprecedented scale, tied together by the chant: “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

Despite the various attempts to silence the rebellion, and the evidence of massacres carried against minorities during the unrest, including against the Kurds and the Baloch, to deflect attention and provide a scapegoat, Iranians remain firmly hostile to the Revolutionary Guard. The Iranians have shown again they are willing to sacrifice their lives to dismantle a system whose primary goal is to humiliate and torment them.

As Iranian security services beat to death schoolgirls for refusing to sing pro-regime anthems, the Biden administration is still hesitant about its position and the subsequent steps it should take. Since taking office, the Biden administration has pledged to restore the Iran nuclear deal and to use diplomacy as the primary tool for negotiating with the ayatollahs while ostensibly discouraging their hostile activities. However, Iran’s involvement in terrorism, bribery, smuggling arms and drugs, and political infiltration abroad has only increased, making it more difficult for the White House to ignore the regime’s ambitions and to defend an agreement that would jeopardize US national security and the interests of our allies.

When asked about the status of the nuclear negotiations, State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that it “is not our focus right now.” The attention of the administration, he continued, “is on the remarkable bravery and courage that the Iranian people are exhibiting through their peaceful demonstrations.”, In a statement on Oct. 3, President Joe Biden declared that “the United States will be imposing further costs on perpetrators of violence against peaceful protesters.’’

What costs? The steps the administration has taken have been largely symbolic. This policy of studiously avoiding any form of pressure harms America’s global standing. At a time when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-made drones murder Ukrainian civilians, Iranian-backed militias threaten the Saudis and Israelis, and Iranian cyberattackers target Albania, the United States is proving itself to be an unreliable patron. Behind Saudi Arabia’s refusal to collaborate on oil prices, there are Biden’s actions supporting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and lifting Iranian-backed proxies from terrorist lists. By sending signals that indicate it is possible to normalize relations with a regime that sponsors terrorism in the region and supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, interpret these actions as the US giving up on its core strategic interests. Iran does not fear America, and allies do not trust it.

It is not a secret that Iran is Russia’s ally and sees the Ukraine invasion as an opportunity to expand the geographical borders of its drone and missile proliferation plan, weaken the West, and expand its sphere of influence. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi declared to Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in September 2022: “Our relationships are not ordinary. They are strategic in nature. Iran aims to strengthen its strategic connections with Russia in all sectors, including politics, economics, commerce, and aerospace.” Eroding US military presence and influence has long been a dream of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, partnering with Russia is a natural choice. This is not the first time that Iran has conducted such activities. In 2019, Saudi Arabia warned about Iranian operations as its oil production facilities were attacked by Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen.

The Biden administration’s Iran policy highlights the threats posed by a nuclear Iran while failing to recognize and address that a non-nuclear Iran can be just as dangerous. Iran plans to supply Russia with a batch of medium-range missiles as well as a significant number of drones to help Russian President Vladimir Putin systematically destroy Ukrainian critical infrastructure, according to US security sources. Still, there has yet to be a concrete strategy to counter Iranian weapons, drones, and missiles, which continue to become more advanced. Indeed, the appeasement of the Iranian regime has only emboldened it, as confirmed by several reports revealing that Iran also sent trainers to Crimea to assist Russia in overcoming challenges with the drone fleet it acquired from Tehran.

By ignoring Iran’s operations in the Middle East, the US is going to have to pay the price in Europe. It may have avoided addressing the issue with the Saudis, Syrians, and Iraqis, but it cannot do so with the Ukrainians. Iran’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves its desire to dismantle the world order and the international system. Moreover, Iran is also extending its web by funding proxies not only in the Middle East but in North Africa, such as the Polisario Front. Iran has always had revolutionary ambitions, and the idea that a diplomatic gesture will change the ideology by which the ayatollahs operate is utterly naive. We have seen this reality proved regarding Tehran's nuclear ambitions as it continues to enrich uranium and refuses to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency access to plants to fulfill its obligations. When the Iranians chant “Death to Khamenei,” it is because they are well aware that reforms and negotiations will not transform the nature of the regime that continues to oppress them.

Biden described the actions the US is taking to assist the demonstrators in a press conference on October 3: They include providing internet access and continuing to hold “Iranian officials accountable and supporting the rights of Iranians to protest freely.” Yet the administration has been loosening sanctions enforcement and dismantling punitive measures since taking office. The lack of strong support for the demonstrations, which have more recently adopted a clear goal of overthrowing the regime, is partially motivated by the same justification given in 2009: “Let’s wait and see.”

In order to avoid a repeat of former President Barack Obama's retrospective regret of not supporting the Iranian Green Movement in 2009, the Biden administration must stop legitimizing a thug regime that is butchering its own citizens to remain in power. The Biden administration should review and reevaluate its Iran policy in four ways to maintain stability in the Middle East and contain Russia.

First, the Biden administration should stop negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal because they do not solve the Iran nuclear problem. Furthermore, the concessions made, such as sanctions lifted by the deal, will only be used against US counterterrorism efforts and continuing support of Ukraine. Additional access to funds resulting from a deal will jeopardize the security of key US allies, which will then have no choice but to embark on a nuclear arms race. Moreover, by January 2031, the JCPOA will allow Iran to enrich uranium without restrictions, freeing it to employ sophisticated centrifuges that it has hidden from the IAEA. A return to the JCPOA would produce irreversible damage to our core national interests.

Second, the Biden administration should reestablish the maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime. Canada took the lead following Iran’s human rights abuses against protesters by imposing sanctions on the regime, including three entities and 17 people, such as former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In fact, even Switzerland, which has already adopted UN and EU sanctions against Iran, is considering wider sanctions, given Iran’s crackdown on protesters. The Biden administration has the ability to choke off Iranian financial institutions that are utilized to fund the ayatollahs’ terrorist and hostile operations. Through a policy of maximum pressure sanctions, the US can cut Iranian players off from the necessary funds to fuel the oppression of their citizens.

Third, the Biden administration should work with its allies to address the non-nuclear Iran challenge. As Ukraine is fighting against kamikaze drones and initiating cooperation with Israel on air and missile defense, the US can utilize the framework of the Abraham Accords to move toward an Abraham Accords 2.0, where military collaboration is encouraged to increase intelligence sharing between US allies and facilitate counterterrorism efforts against an imperialist and revolutionary Iran.

Fourth, it is clear that the Iranian regime has lost its legitimacy. Iranians have no desire to negotiate with their government, and they have shown that they will not only burn the hijab but destroy billboards of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Qassem Soleimani, and other figures central to the Islamic Republic. The Biden administration and its allies should plan for what is next. A post-IRGC Iran is possible, and it is necessary to prepare for one in order to avoid a civil war and catastrophic collapse that could lead Iran to end up in a Syria-like spiral, with Putin still supporting the regime in place.

According to recent reports, Iran is using its militias that operate in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to crack down on protesters in Iran. As the protests continue to increase in intensity, the best way to support Iranians is to ensure their government does not send them to die in proxy wars against the US or its allies. A new Iran policy would acknowledge the connection to proxies and the threat that Iran poses outside its borders within the region at large. The Biden administration needs to abandon hopes that Iran will start wanting to work together with the West and recognize that its actions strongly indicate otherwise.

Washington has now reached a point where it can no longer perpetuate the myth that it is possible to treat Iran as yet another international player among others in the community. There is an urgent need for a new Iran policy. If the Green Movement failed in 2009 because of a lack of commitment and support from the Obama administration, the Biden administration has the ability to enable the current revolution to succeed. It is in the best interest of the people of Iran and the people of America to suffocate a regime that holds its own citizens hostage and encourages its youth to chant “Death to America!” If we do not take prompt action, the US will pay the price.

Read in the Washington Examiner.