US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has blasted Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s administration appears keen on rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Barack Obama administration’s so-called “Iran deal” that notionally guaranteed Iran would not produce nuclear weapons. 

A deal remains unlikely. Nevertheless, the very fact that the Biden administration has doggedly pursued the chimerical agreement for so long, and in the face of such undeniable strategic evidence of Iranian hostility and coordination with China and Russia, shows that the White House’s current strategic heuristic is out of touch with Middle Eastern reality. 

By pursuing a calamitous Middle East policy, the Biden administration plays directly into China’s and Russia’s hands.

The administration has shifted foreign-policy goals like the winds since January 2021. 

After much hand-wringing and clear resistance from a conflict-averse military leadership, the US seems to have abandoned its conciliatory approach to China: As punishment for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) canceled John Kerry’s climate-cooperation pet projects. 

In Europe, Biden began by seeking another Russia “reset.” But the mounting evidence of Russia’s planned invasion of Ukraine convinced the US president that a more robust policy would be necessary. Biden, and once again an element of the American military leadership, has repeatedly shied away from direct confrontation with Russia. 

Nevertheless, the US has progressively expanded the weapons it provides to Ukraine. At this point, fighter aircraft are virtually the only capability the US has refused to provide.  Ukraine now fields American barrel artillery, precision-guided shells, long-range rocket artillery, and anti-radiation missiles. 

Now that Ukraine has demonstrated its will to fight, the Biden administration seems committed to staying the course until Russia’s invasion is defeated.

These policy shifts demonstrate modified strategic assumptions about major international players, their interests, relationships, and politics that guide policymaking. 

The Biden administration’s Russian strategic assumption is now irreversibly transformed. Its Chinese strategic heuristic is shifting – continued Chinese pressure on Taiwan, along with constant congressional arm-twisting, is likely to solidify an assertive, rather than an accommodating, China policy.

However, the Biden administration’s understanding of the Middle East sits rigidly in concrete poured during the Obama administration. Its intellectual blind spot demonstrates the White House’s fundamental misunderstanding of the threat the US currently faces and is again poised to generate from the US a significant concession to Iran. 

Obama era redux

The Biden administration’s Iran policy likely originates beyond the president himself. Despite his supposed foreign-policy credentials, Biden has little tangible foreign-policy experience, and no successes. His constant impulse has been a reflexive anti-interventionism, broken only when politically expedient in 2000-2004. 

During the Obama administration, as vice-president, he had little role in Iran policy. His signature foreign-policy achievement, the stabilization of Iraq and subsequent US withdrawal, had fallen apart in spectacular fashion by 2014. Biden’s nonsensical plan to divide Iraq into three states became a calling card demonstrating the old senator’s supposed prudence.

Perhaps Biden was removed from the Iran deal’s intimate negotiation processes because of his limitations. Obama may have recoiled from allowing his unfocused vice-president the chance to destroy his legacy-defining achievement.  

However, the Biden administration is jam-packed with the Iran deal’s architects. Wendy Sherman, current deputy secretary of state, was the deal’s primary negotiator. National security adviser Jake Sullivan was one of the three identified delegates who met with their Iranian interlocutors secretly in 2013. The other two were William Burns, Biden’s CIA director, and Puneet Talwar, now a Biden ambassadorial nominee. 

John Kerry may now be far from Iran policy as climate envoy. But as Obama’s secretary of state, he was legally the United States’ lead negotiator for the JCPOA. 

The Biden team is not only saturated with former Obama staffers, but specifically with those most responsible for the Iran deal. Biden need not drive the deal forward: The inertia of Foggy Bottom will push it ahead.

Bizarre strategy

As of this writing, a deal remains tantalizingly close. Iran allegedly scrapped its demands for less intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and accepted that the US will list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, although it seems to have reasserted them. 

Nevertheless, a final complication remains that may scrap any deal: Iran insists that the US provide it guarantees that protect its international investments if the US again leaves the JCPOA. This is impossible. 

Biden, like Obama, has no chance of converting the JCPOA into an actual treaty. Nor does the US president have the authority to treat the JCPOA as an executive agreement, a quasi-treaty the American executive creates under his constitutional authority – the JCPOA’s content, as a diplomatic document, does not fall under the president’s actual remit as commander-in-chief. 

Hence the JCPOA will never be binding under US law, and the Biden administration can offer Iran no guarantees that its finances will be protected if a different president withdraws from the nuclear deal.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the administration so doggedly pursues the JCPOA is strategically bizarre. The only benefit a nuclear deal would provide to the West at this point is an expansion in oil capacity that might reduce soaring Western European energy prices. Theoretically, this would help the US bolster French and German resolve against Russia.

However, the illiberal entente of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran has solidified their cooperation since Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Naturally there are gaps and hesitations. Xi Jinping, facing a property crisis that could stagger the Chinese economy immediately before the 20th CPC Congress, fears short-term Western sanctions, and has therefore been unwilling to provide open military support to Russia. Nevertheless, there truly appear to be “no limits” to Sino-Russian cooperation. 

Chinese and Russian propaganda is increasingly synchronized, especially on Taiwan. Vladimir Putin has provided forthright support for China’s pressure against Taiwan. China has joined Vostok 2022, participating for the second consecutive year in that Russian-led military exercise. Monthly Chinese exports to Russia are now worth US$6.77 billion, nearly 50% higher than in July 2021, while Russian exports to China reached $10 billion. 

Iran, meanwhile, is now providing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia, while its partner-cum-proxy, Syria, has pledged mercenaries and military support to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

All three anti-American powers share the same objective. They seek to destroy the US-backed Eurasian order, replacing it with a system that suits their political interests and distinct but equally brutal brands of authoritarianism. 

Their coordination has intensified over the past year, and will only sharpen over the next, as China becomes more assertive and Russia more desperate. The signal consequence of an Iran deal would be to provide a conduit for illegal Russian oil, likely not a Biden administration strategic priority.

Seth Cropsey

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a US naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the navy, and is the author of the books Mayday and Seablindness.