On the campaign trail, President-elect Biden correctly castigated the Trump administration for leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact with our Asian partners. The TPP was meant to be a counterweight to China in trade and geo-political security. When we left, China established its own pact with some of our Asian allies. In a recent interview with Tom Friedman, Biden repeated this theme. “The best China strategy…is one which gets every one of our…allies on the same page,” he said.
Despite the United States’ assent to China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in an effort to moderate its future behavior, Biden asserted that China’s trade practices are “abusive…that’s stealing intellectual property, dumping product, illegal subsidies… and forcing tech transfer” from American companies to their Chinese counterparts.
Confronting China, Biden concluded, “is all about leverage, and in my own view we don’t have it yet” as we need to re-engage with our allies.
Yet Biden is willing to relinquish all the leverage built up over the past few years over Iran’s malignant behavior to resurrect the grievously flawed Iran deal of 2015. He reaffirmed that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow up negotiations.” Rejoining the agreement means dropping the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration. Needless to say, this was greeted with resounding approval from the Iranian foreign minister, who said that rejoining the deal could be done “automatically” and “needs no negotiation.”
So we apply leverage against China when we build up the capacity to implement it, and throw away the considerable leverage we already have developed against Iran.
This approach is wrong and dangerous for many reasons.
First, the Iranian economy is in deep trouble, with its GDP cratering, its currency halved in value this past year, and inflation at 30 percent. The government will be forced to pare down subsidies for essential goods, which in the past fomented riots, as the Iranian people fume at the billions Iran spends to subsidize Hizbullah, Hamas, and their proxies throughout the Middle East and Venezuela.
Second, there’s no precondition to restore the arms embargo ban that expired in October, as Iran marches forward in refining its deadly missile program, which it so aptly applied in Saudi Arabia.
Third, the Iranians can’t be trusted. The International Atomic Energy Agency could not confirm Iran’s compliance with the deal in 2017, and no army sites can be inspected at Iran’s insistence. Iran’s assertion that it wanted nuclear power for peaceful means was blown up by the Mossad’s transfer of half a ton of secret documents from Teheran exposing Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.
Fourth, Iran’s nefarious activities, even before Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, should disqualify it from any approach that would restore the deal. Let’s name a few. Propping up the murderous Assad regime in Syria, with more than 500,000 deaths, in his disastrous civil war; “owning” Lebanon; destabilizing Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels; developing precision guided missiles, a clear threat to Israel and its neighbors; and with the Cubans and Russians, supporting the corrupt Maduro regime in Venezuela. Let’s add Iran’s sheltering of Al Quaeda’s second in command, presumably to exert its own leverage against us, until Israel assassinated him at the behest of the United States, and its dismal human rights history.
Fifth, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically. As the appeasement of Iran went forward, Israel established diplomatic relations with three Gulf countries, with more to come, and has the de facto support of Saudi Arabia, which has permitted Israel to use its airspace. This provides a greater geopolitical and military bulwark against Iran. Any U.S. initiative that would restore the status quo ante would severely alienate the allies the U.S. needs to confront Iran.
Sixth, why would Iran want to renegotiate a new deal if the sanctions are removed? Snap back sanctions are difficult to re-impose, and how likely are we to get support from China and Russia, who would use any opportunity to thwart U.S. interests? And the feckless Europeans wouldn’t even agree to lengthen the terms of the expiring arms embargo.
Last, and most important, the deal is fatefully flawed with its myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, ignoring its ballistic missile programs and malignant behavior. Most fundamentally, if Iran behaves and follow the terms of the deal, it can legally develop nuclear bombs a mere decade from now. Prime Minister Netanyahu was excoriated for speaking to a joint session of Congress, embarrassing President Obama and driving a wedge with Democrats. But at the end of the day, his warning that the deal provided a pathway for the bomb was accurate.
Recognizing this, and in defiance of their party, Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Charles Schumer of New York, and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland voted against the deal, with Schumer, the Senate minority leader, invoking the Hebrew meaning of his name, Shomer — which means watcher — to justify his support of Israel.
Biden should follow his own advice on confronting China for Iran: leverage the economic distress the sanctions imposed and work with our allies in the Middle-East and Israel to exert maximum pressure to get a better deal that meet our and their interests before agreeing to move forward with Iran.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.