Biden is running out of time to dodge Trump's traps with Iran

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© Mandel Ngan/Getty Images President Joe Biden and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

  • Despite calling for a return to the Iran nuclear deal, President Joe Biden has yet to do so while in office.
  • The window of opportunity to revive the deal is closing, and Biden needs to act quickly and boldly to clear the political traps set by Trump.
  • Emma Belcher is president of Ploughshares Fund.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The future of the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance, and with it the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran or another Middle East war to stop it.

The next few weeks will be decisive. To save the deal and renew America’s engagement in the world, President Joe Biden will need to act quickly and boldly to clear away the political traps set by President Donald Trump.

While campaigning for president, Biden said the best way to avoid an onrush of war in the Middle East would be for “the president to rejoin the Iran deal and build on it.” Yet, the administration was slow off the mark in its efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that Biden helped create, and the window of opportunity before the June Iranian elections is closing.

The current talks in Vienna are a welcome development and a sign that both sides realize that the stakes are high and time is short. But the drums of war are still beating.

Just this weekend, Israel reportedly attacked a key nuclear facility in Iran, presumably to set back the negotiations as well as Tehran’s nuclear program. This is a reminder of how fragile this diplomatic process is, and how important it is to bring the talks to a successful end before other hostile acts can trip them up.

© Frank Franklin II/AP Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in 2016. Frank Franklin II/AP

Iran was in compliance with the agreement negotiated by the Obama-Biden administration when Trump withdrew in 2018. Trump reimposed crushing economic sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran back to the table to get a “better” deal.

Trump’s plan was a “maximum failure” that produced a predictable reply: Tehran soon began to restart its nuclear program, including enriching uranium beyond the deal’s limits. Since Trump withdrew, the estimated time it would take for Iran to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb dropped from 12 months to only a few.

As the LA Times put it, “Without a deal restricting the Iranian nuclear program, the choice becomes to watch Iran march closer to the ability to build a bomb, or to go to war to stop it.” In Biden’s own words, Trump “recklessly tossed away a policy that was working to keep America safe and replaced it with one that has worsened the threat.”

Beyond merely reinstating the economic sanctions from the Iran deal, the Trump administration built a malicious “sanctions wall,” including redundant terrorism sanctions for the sole purpose of making it as hard as possible for the Biden team to get back into the nuclear agreement. To lift the sanctions as required under the nuclear deal, Biden will have to lift some so-called “terrorism” sanctions as well.

Not shy about their disingenuous sanctions ploy, Trump officials said that listing existing nuclear sanctions again under terrorism “makes it more difficult to reverse the action,” while Trump ally Mark Dubowitz urged Trump to implement sanctions that his successor “could not easily dismantle.”

The Biden team seems to understand that Trump’s sanctions wall must come down.

State Department Spokesman Ned Price told journalists April 7 that “We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.”

© Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images A pharmacist hands a bag of medications to a customer in a pharmacy in Tehran, February 20, 2020. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Even so, the Biden administration is understandably reluctant to take on this fight at the same time that it is doing so much else. Biden cannot afford to lose any Democratic support for his agenda, particularly in the 50-50 Senate.

Yet, as Biden’s interim guidance on how America will engage in the world states, “[r]eal strength isn’t bluster or bullying. It means leading with our values.”

And lifting malicious sanctions that not only undermine the Iran deal but hurt those most vulnerable is most certainly in line with American values. Sanctions have hamstrung civil society’s ability to fight for human rights and democracy, wreaked havoc on the livelihood of ordinary Iranians, caused food insecurity and limited access to medicines and medical equipment.

Worse, these sanctions have exacerbated the horrible COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult for a pandemic-stricken population to fight the virus.

In its relations with Iran, the United States must be guided by empathy and shared humanity, as well as by protecting our national security interests. By dismantling the sanctions and returning to the nuclear deal, we’ll have the basis to address Iran’s problematic behavior in the region more broadly, while helping Iranian civilians survive this disastrous pandemic.

President Joe Biden must turn his fine words about American strength and values into practice. He must be as bold on Iran as he has been on domestic policy, where he has proposed aggressive measures on the pandemic, infrastructure, and energy.

This means expending political capital to lift the disingenuous Trump sanctions so that all parties can return to compliance. And he needs to act now, before the diplomatic path closes and a nuclear Iran and/or another costly war in the Middle East become more likely, threatening Biden’s entire agenda. It’s time for a principled approach to Iran that truly keeps Americans safe.

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