By Jim Banks and Michael Makovsky
November 23, 2021
After months of buying time to further advance its nuclear program, Iran announced this month that it will return to nuclear negotiations by December. The White House’s meek response—enjoining Tehran to conduct diplomacy “in good faith“—at best reflects the triumph of misplaced hope over hard-won experience, and at worst a descent into defeatist acquiescence to a nuclear Iran.
The Biden administration’s aim to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be disastrous and self-defeating, not just for the United States but also for our partners in the Middle East. Sanctions relief would give Iran tens of billions of dollars to spend on drones, missiles and militias that pose region-wide threats, including against American and allied troops—just as happened when the deal was first implemented. Rejoining the deal would also relinquish any leverage for getting Tehran to agree, as Biden originally sought, to a “longer, stronger” follow-on accord.
In exchange for all these benefits, Iran only would have to curtail its nuclear program for a very short time. The embargo on its ballistic missile program, which includes delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, expires next year—just the first of many parts of the deal scheduled to sunset. Tehran’s path to a legitimized industrial-scale nuclear program will be all clear in less than a decade. That’s assuming, of course, that Iran will not continue to cheat and deny proper access to international inspectors.
Reentering such a deeply flawed and lopsided agreement, or even remaining so eager to continue talks with Tehran, will only compound the damage the administration has already dealt to U.S. interests and deterrence by its non-response to continued Iranian aggression in Syria and Iraq, and by its precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. It will communicate not only to Tehran, but also Beijing, Moscow and others, that the United States is a superpower on the run, recklessly willing to empower its adversaries and forsake its allies.
There is, however, a better path forward, offering a chance for success while restoring American credibility. That is to focus on building leverage against Iran, combining an economic “maximum pressure” strategy—like that deployed by the previous administration—with credible military deterrence, to signal clearly that the United States will defend its interests. While dangerous, the Tehran regime is not all-powerful or irrational, and is susceptible to pressure on multiple fronts.
First, the Biden administration must alter its rhetoric. It needs to stop stating it will only consider unspecified “other options” if and when diplomacy fails. Such messages only encourage Iran to drag out talks while its nuclear program and bargaining power grow. Instead, it should be clear that all elements of American power are on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Second, the United States should back that rhetoric up. Congress can help by codifying and expanding maximum pressure sanctions against the Iranian regime into law. The Republican Study Committee introduced the Maximum Pressure Act last April to do just that, and to provide unprecedented congressional review so that no future president can lift sanctions unilaterally. Iran must understand that any and all sanctions relief that the Biden administration provides can be reversed by a future Congress. Codifying sanctions will undermine Tehran’s ability to pursue its regional aggression and advance its nuclear program by severing its energy, industrial and financial sectors from the outside world, clamping down on its arms proliferation and helping Congress oversee and enforce these measures.
Third, President Biden must restore credible deterrence. That begins by hitting back against the frequent Iranian-backed missile and drone attacks on U.S. forces and partners in the region, such as the brazen drone assassination attempt against Iraq’s prime minister. The Pentagon must also stop removing assets from the region and enhance its regional force posture. And the United States must visibly demonstrate its willingness and ability, as a last resort, to use military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
To further enhance the credible deterrence of military action and demonstrate support for a close, threatened ally, the United States should also augment Israel’s military capabilities. Doing so would help Israel defend itself against Iran and roll back Tehran’s regional footprint and nuclear program. For example, the United States should expedite delivery to Israel of KC-46 air refueling tankers, F-35 and F-15 multirole aircraft, precision guided munitions and air defense batteries and interceptors.
If the Biden administration, with help from Congress, takes these steps, it will regain leverage against Iran and other adversaries. We must reverse the United States’ perceived weak standing around the globe. Once on stronger footing, we can improve our chances of reaching a diplomatic solution to the serious threat a nuclear Iran poses to America and our global partners. The time to act is now.