Critics of Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran are preparing for the same fight now that Joe Biden has made it clear he intends to reenter the deal from which Donald Trump withdrew. And because the last president showed that Obama’s foreign policy legacy was vulnerable to the vicissitudes of American politics, the Biden team will likely rush to get Iran the bomb as soon as possible.
Iran hawks are concerned about the latest prospective Biden appointment thought to be too sympathetic to the Islamic Republic. Robert Malley is a 57-year-old lawyer, author, and head of the International Crisis Group who served in the Bill Clinton administration and joined the Obama White House in its second term. He played an important role in the negotiations that led to the July 2015 deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Now, he’s said to be in line for the job of Iran envoy.
Iran deal opponents, including Republican senators and congressmen, former Trump officials, and Middle East analysts, compare Malley unfavorably to Biden appointees like incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who says he wants a “longer and stronger” deal with Tehran, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who enjoys a reputation as a moderate Democrat who engages with moderate Republicans. They say that Blinken and Sullivan agree that the JCPOA needs to be fixed.
Compared to them, on this view, Malley is a hardliner.
The template should sound familiar. It’s the same one that Western policymakers who seek accommodation with Iran use to describe the terror regime in Tehran. There are hardliners and moderates, and we need to engage the latter to marginalize the former.
But the hardliner-moderate paradigm sheds no more light on the workings of the new Biden administration than it does on the Islamic Republic of Iran. The White House is staffed not to fix the JCPOA but to take it as it is, which is why it’s loaded with Obama officials who, like Malley, were part of securing the original agreement. Blinken, for instance, was Secretary of State John Kerry’s deputy when the deal was struck in July 2015. Blinken’s new deputy, Wendy Sherman, was the Obama team’s lead negotiator on Iran talks. Brett McGurk, who led the effort to send $1.7 billion in cash to Iran in the winter of 2015–2016, leads the White House’s Middle East desk.
Perhaps the most important staffing decision that Biden made regarding Iran policy was naming retired State Department official William Burns as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013, he and Sullivan opened up a secret channel with Tehran that led to the JCPOA. His nomination as spy chief signaled to the Iranians that someone they trusted was holding a file of vital interest to them. Under the Trump administration, the CIA waged an aggressive campaign targeting regime pillars, such as the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary force, Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a drone strike last January.
You can’t make a deal with a terror state if the CIA is killing its top terrorists, and appointing Burns tells the Iranians that the agency’s campaign against them is over.
The Biden White House isn’t looking to get a better deal with Iran this time around, for the same reason the same policymakers didn’t get a better deal when they were working for Obama. The only difference now is the six-year-long trail of lies that Obama–Biden officials have seeded through the press, from the Iran deal echo chamber to Russia collusion and most recently the “domestic terror” threat posed by the more than 74 million Americans who didn’t vote for Biden. To single out one Biden deputy as too pro-Iran is to ignore not only the character of the administration but the purpose of the Iran deal.
The JCPOA was never intended to stop Iran from getting the bomb—if it were, it wouldn’t contain “sunset” clauses restricting Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear activities that are due to expire over the next decade. The point rather was to put Iran’s program under the protection of an international agreement sanctioned by Washington, and give the regime access to the money and technology it needed to build its nuclear weapons program so that by the time the sunset clauses ran out, the regime’s bomb would be legal. Obama was arming his new ally.
What distinguishes Malley from the rest of the new White House’s Iran team is simply that he understood from the beginning that the JCPOA never really was an arms agreement. Rather, it was the mechanism with which Obama realigned U.S. interests in the Middle East, tilting against traditional regional partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia and toward the Islamic Republic.
It should be easier six years after the JCPOA to understand why Obama wanted to realign U.S. interests with Iran’s. Like Trump, he wanted to withdraw from the Middle East. But unlike his successor, he didn’t believe that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and NATO member Turkey were capable of stabilizing the region in the absence of the United States. He thought Iran could. He admired hard men like Soleimani and told Arab officials that they should find someone like him.
And this shows that alliances aren’t always or exclusively about shared interests. Often, they are about common sensibilities or worldviews. That America’s ruling class has adopted the methods of third-world security states—political espionage, censorship, show trials, jailing political opponents as “domestic terrorists”—shows why the Iran deal is so important to Obama. He feels a kinship with the regime.
Malley’s appointment just confirms that Biden is an avatar for a third Obama term.
Lee Smith is the author of the recently published book “The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.