To date, one of the most disastrous policies of the Biden Administration has been the non-enforcement of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, as part of its quest to renegotiate yet another nuclear deal with Tehran. Nowhere is the difference between Presidents Trump and Biden more apparent than on the topic of dealing with the Iranian regime. Trump, while determined to avoid embroiling the US in another “forever war,” wasn’t afraid to use military force when we were threatened, as Qassim Soleimani found out. As a businessman, Trump also understood the hard power dimensions to economic and financial pressure, and did not hesitate to employ and enforce sweeping sanctions on Iran and its terror apparatus (including on Hizballah, Hamas, and the Houthis).
President Biden, however, has proven the polar opposite. Neither willing to respond militarily to Iranian missile and drone attacks on US forces and allies in Iraq, nor willing to employ maximum economic pressure against Khameini, Raisi and Co., we now face a politically-emboldened and economically-enriched Iran. We face Iranian-funded terror groups that have regained their balance, and are now expanding in capability and global reach. We also face a fundamentalist regime that is now on the threshold of possessing a nuclear weapon. All of this has happened on Biden’s watch, not Trump’s.
During the previous administration, we mounted a concerted effort to dry up the funds used by Iran to sponsor terrorism and to clandestinely acquire WMD-related equipment. But that effort has evaporated, even as the Iranians string along Special Envoy Malley in never-ending nuclear negotiations in Vienna. While the Biden crowd continues to “wait for Godot,” the Iranians are now exporting a million barrels of oil a day. That is five times more than what we had cut them down to by 2020. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s Central Bank has report massive revenue increases, year over year. The regime harvested more than $39 billion from March 2021-22, a staggering increase of 77 percent from their previous fiscal year.
Without question, that money is fueling Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and will be used once again to destabilize the region. Specifically, significant amounts will be funneled to terrorist proxies such as Hizballah. But just as concerning, Iran has picked up where Russia left off in the Western Hemisphere. Iran is now supporting the Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro (who also is benefiting from Biden’s refusal to enforce sanctions), and Iran is helping to shore up Venezuela’s oil production. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps agents clearly feel free to travel about the region, as the recent grounding of an Iranian-Venezuelan aircraft in Argentina demonstrates. Because of Joe Biden’s deliberate decisions, we likely will wake up one morning to discover that Iran has placed either missiles, or long-range weaponized drones (or both), in Venezuela, capable of striking the US.
We also will wake up a vastly expanded Hizballah threat. At the invitation of Maduro and Tarek el Aissami, that terror group is growing its network throughout Latin America. Of course, the relationship between Iran and Hizballah is symbiotic. We recently commemorated the anniversary of the horrific attack by Hizballah on 18 July 1994 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed over eighty people and wounded many more. This remains the worst single terror attack on Latin American soil, and Iran was directly involved in its planning and execution. On Biden’s watch, the risks of another such attack – or something even worse – are on the rise.
Just as was the case for Iran, President Trump’s sanctions had Hezbollah in a financial chokehold. Because we bankrupted his Qods Force benefactor, Hizballah’s leader -- Hassan Nasrallah – faced a serious “cash crunch.” Hizballah began reducing social services to its fighters, and was making cuts in some of its martyr’s payments. Without the $700 million-a-year, or more, that he once received from Iran, Nasrallah was forced to try raising money via telethons. They also began calling in “chits” with the Lebanese diaspora in Latin America, Africa, and the Gulf to repatriate funds to Lebanon. A significant number of operatives also began supplementing their incomes by trafficking in narcotics. Domestically, in 2019 his group became the target of unprecedented mass protests in Lebanon. Nasrallah admitted quite candidly that the United States Treasury was hammering his group financially.
We were there, at every turn, squeezing terror financing. We took down the main Hizballah bank in Lebanon; it has now been liquidated. We did the same to another bank in Iraq. We systematically used sanctions to target Hizballah’s financiers, and imposed travel bans and asset freezes around the globe. We disrupted multiple schemes between Hizballah and the Qods Force to smuggle oil in the region. In Latin America, starting with Argentina and followed by others, countries began designating Hizballah as a terrorist group. The same is true in Europe, with both the UK and Germany. Countries also began making arrests of Hizballah-linked operatives on their own, such as the Barakats in the triborder region between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.
In the Gulf, we worked through the newly-formed Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to secure sanctions by all of the Gulf Arab nations against Hizballah’s Shura Council, and against Iranian financial networks. That Center was the direct result of President Trump’s first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia, and it became an indispensable tool in our efforts to combat illicit finance across the region. We also worked closely with individual Gulf partners to disrupt Iran’s financial operations in their countries.
Because of President Trump’s leadership, and his decision to impose maximum economic pressure, we had the regime in Tehran and its terror proxies “on the ropes.” But most of the momentum we achieved from 2017-2021 has dissipated. The TFTC seems to have gone virtual, and largely dormant.
The Department of Justice is not seizing Iranian oil cargos with the same frequency as before. China and India see the Biden Administration’s lax enforcement of sanctions as an open invitation to steadily increase their purchases of Iranian oil and condensates. Treasury now only conducts sporadic sanctions against Hizballah finances, and Hassan Nasrallah is no longer begging for money on TV. Indeed, as the economy of Lebanon implodes, financially Hizballah – if it receives an expected new influx of cash from Tehran – will be in a comparatively better financial position than ever before. Finally, since President Biden took office, Iran has made most of its significant nuclear advances (for example in terms of advanced centrifuges and the purity of its enriched uranium), placing it on the nuclear threshold.
Iran and its terrorist networks are expanding into the policy vacuum created by this administration. Meanwhile, Malley continues to wait for Godot in Vienna.