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Iran Tests the New Administration
(Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran Tests the New Administration

Seth Cropsey

On 18 January, Iran detained businessman Emad Sharghi, preventing his alleged attempt to “flee” the country. Sharghi, a dual Iranian-American citizen who works for a UAE-based aviation brokerage firm, has been harassed by Iranian authorities in the past, and was imprisoned previously in 2018. In November 2020, Sharghi was convicted without a trial of espionage by Abdolqasem Salavati, a controversial Iranian judge who has convicted numerous dissidents. Salavati is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts system, a parallel judiciary that handles cases relating to regime security. Established in 1979, the Revolutionary Courts have overseen numerous domestic purges, acting akin to the Soviet Union’s NKVD-operated secret court system during the 1930s. Although Sharghi was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in November and arrested in December, he was soon released on bail.

Considering the direct control the regime holds over the Revolutionary Courts system and the mullahs’ record of involvement in U.S. presidential elections, it is likely that high-level decision-makers in the Islamic Republic ordered Sharghi’s arrest. Moreover, his conviction occurred within a week of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. Fakhrizadeh was an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps brigadier general and physicist who oversaw Iran’s nuclear program. Coupled with the assassination of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Fakhrizadeh’s death demonstrates a significant degree of penetration into Iran’s security system. Sharghi’s U.S. citizenship and arrest, therefore, is a direct message to the United States, much like Iran’s missile strike against a U.S.-used Iraqi airbase was after the Soleimani killing.

Iran specifically has a history of detaining U.S. citizens. Three others remain in prison, with Siamak Namazi having been detained since October 2015 and his father Baquer since February 2016. Karan Vafadari was reportedly released in 2018 but has not been permitted to leave Iran. Of course, these detentions have little practical effect. Arresting a single citizen does create complications for the State Department and discourages Americans from doing business in Iran, but it does not do critical damage to the U.S. economy or threaten defense infrastructure. But these sorts of arrests are excellent signals. They demonstrate the Iranian regime’s displeasure at U.S. actions and allow the regime to obfuscate its diplomatic intentions. For example, Iran arrested several U.S. citizens during the P5+1 Negotiations, both before and after the JPOA concluded.

Sharghi’s arrest occurs during a period of transition. As a candidate and president-elect, Mr. Biden has been light on policy specifics, even by the standards of American presidential campaigns. Could this have been unintentional? By avoiding concrete statements, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris could appeal to a broad coalition of voters, ranging from the Democratic party’s radical left to Wall Street bankers and suburban white voters who put Donald Trump in power in 2016. By appealing to a halcyon age of compromise and appropriating leftist rhetoric when necessary, the Biden-Harris campaign retained enough rhetorical flexibility to prevent Mr. Trump from capitalizing upon any major gaffes and employing his power of description.

Nevertheless, President Biden is now confronted with the need to govern. Although he has remained evasive when pressured for specifics, the Beltway dictum “personnel is policy” provides some insight. Anthony Blinken, nominee for Secretary of State, was Biden’s National Security Advisor from 2009-2013, and then Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served in multiple State Department positions from 2008 to 2016, was nominated as UN Ambassador. President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, replaced Blinken in 2013 as the Vice President’s National Security Advisor. More broadly, Biden’s departmental appointees are, as one would expect, former Obama administration officials or members of the broader Democratic foreign policy community.

One can expect Mr. Biden to resurrect the 2015 JCPOA and resume negotiations with Iran. The so-called “Iran Deal” was marketed as the Obama administration’s crowning foreign policy achievement, alongside U.S. normalization with Cuba. Personnel, once again, is policy. In addition to Mr. Biden’s campaign statements, and his general nominations, he has selected Wendy Sherman as Deputy Secretary of State. Sherman was the lead P5+1 Negotiator. A reasonable expectation is that she will spearhead Biden’s Iran policy.

Much hinges on whether Mr. Biden and his team adopt an identical outlook to his Democratic predecessor. Advocates of Obama’s Iran policy typically argued for it on narrow grounds. The deal would not remedy all tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and Iran likely would remain an adversary in multiple circumstances. But by regulating the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the JCPOA would forestall the dangerous possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, which could catalyze broader regional proliferation.

This logic is suspect. If the JCPOA did little to change Iranian foreign policy’s underlying logic, then even if Tehran were to abide by it, its broader aggression would still threaten American interests. Hence the JCPOA simply traded sanctions relief for almost no behavioral changes.

Nevertheless, this perspective is less dangerous than Barack Obama’s more coherent likely underlying motivations. Mr. Obama’s pressure on Israel and Saudi Arabia, desire to reduce Middle Eastern force presence, and unwillingness to defend America’s Middle Eastern interests with force – ironically, he shared the latter two proclivities with Mr. Trump – throws into relief the Iran nuclear deal. It was meant to “reorient” the region by settling disputes between the United States and Iran, thereby enabling an American extrication from the Middle East, a region which Mr. Obama viewed as holding little strategic importance.

But one can oppose an Iraq-style massive intervention while still recognizing the region’s critical role in American security. The Middle East sits along the key maritime route that links Europe and Asia and contains half of the world’s oil reserves. If America is to secure international freedom of navigation, protect Sea Lines of Communication between allies and forces in different hemispheres, and ensure its partners’ economies receive adequate energy, the U.S. must remain engaged in the Middle East.

Iran’s action, therefore, is a clear political signal designed to test the new administration’s resolve and discover whether it intends to cede the region wholesale to Iranian influence. The Biden administration should respond carefully. Despite its strategic incoherence and inability to capitalize on clear political opportunities, the Trump administration produced the Abraham Accords, the public element of a growing anti-Iranian entente. This coalition may be able to resist Iranian influence without significant American support. Still, it will still require active American engagement and the backing of U.S. naval power. And united by a common interest, it is possible that Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’ key Middle Eastern partners, may turn to a different benefactor if they feel the U.S. has no stomach to respond to Iranian aggression.

Mr. Biden’s response to the challenge Iran issued by arresting an American businessman two days before the new administration took office will give the world a good indication of future U.S. policy toward Iran.

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