Joe Biden Should Exploit the U.S. Upper Hand on Iran

With Iran exceeding limits on its nuclear pursuits imposed under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the regime’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, taking a hardline stance by rejecting President-elect Joe Biden’s terms for reviving negotiations with the regime on the nuclear issue, it is increasingly difficult to see how the incoming Biden administration will find a conciliatory path forward on Iran without abandoning U.S. and global security interests.

Neither is it possible for European leaders to justify their continued support of a regime that has dramatically narrowed its breakout time for acquisition of nuclear weapons and engaged in repeated acts that violate the spirit and intent of earlier commitments.

But it is the domestic circumstances — and vulnerabilities — inside the Islamic Republic that continue to evolve in ways that make it virtually impossible for the incoming Biden administration to justify returning to the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal without the establishment of significant pre-conditions.

Political pragmatism, if not realpolitik, dictates that Biden and his European counterparts should be guided as much by opportunity as by principle when it comes to engagement with Tehran. And let’s face it: Opportunities for change abound in Iran.

Tehran’s promises to moderate its naked nuclear ambitions in response to olive branches extended by global powers only perpetuates the theocratic regime’s decades-long, self-serving illusion that appeasement is necessary to achieve peace and security. In reality, the regime’s repeated JCPOA violations — a sophisticated game of cheat and retreat — are designed to conceal vulnerabilities that threaten the regime’s very existence.

One of the clearest vulnerabilities was exposed in November 2019 when Iranians from all walks of life took part in a nationwide uprising sparked by the decision to raise fuel prices. That uprising followed a similar countrywide protest that broke out at the end of 2017 and continued through much of January 2018. Both uprisings undermined longstanding regime disinformation that denied the existence of a popular, coordinated resistance movement capable of posing a credible threat to the clerical regime.

The Islamic Republic’s charade was further shattered by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s 2018 acknowledgment that provocative anti-government slogans had originated with the main pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, also known as the MEK. His speech on the topic served as a prelude to attacks against opposition activists at home and beyond Iran’s borders — a clear signal that Tehran would not constrain its foreign aggression.

The most spectacular such case took place in June 2018 when four individuals, including a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, attempted to bomb a major international gathering attended by tens of thousands of people that was organized near Paris by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The plot — which could have resulted in a bloody terror attack on European soil — was thwarted at the last minute by Belgian, French and German security forces. According to investigations, the primary target of the bombing was the Iranian opposition leader, Maryam Rajavi.

The trial of those four co-conspirators began in Belgium last week with prosecutors seeking a 20-year sentence for the Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. Although he is by no means the first Iranian official accused of ties to terrorism, he is the first Iranian diplomat to be formally charged in Europe. That prosecutors have made a point of emphasizing that Assadi was not acting on his own but under the direction of leading government authorities in Iran is hardly lost on Iran analysts in Washington or intelligence services around the world.

If the Biden administration — or its European counterparts — engage in conciliatory talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before his second term concludes in June 2021, they will do so with the knowledge that they are entertaining a figure who approved an attack that would have killed U.S. citizens and Iranian-European dual nationals. Indeed, the 2018 gathering in support of pro-democracy dissidents in Iran was well attended by international dignitaries as well as Iranian expatriates and their families.

Just two weeks ago, the regime’s anxieties were further exacerbated when Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior regime figure first identified by the NCRI in 2004 as playing a leading role in the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear research, was killed by assailants in broad daylight. Fakhrizadeh, who served as deputy defense minister and held the rank of brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was targeted while traveling with his security detail near Tehran. To miscalculate the current balance of power by not fully appreciating the impact that four years of “maximum pressure” has had on the regime would be like folding with a royal flush.

Simply put, Tehran is in no position to dictate the terms of future engagement on the nuclear issue. In fact the U.S. and Europe are in a strong position to drive a hard bargain with the mullahs by insisting that they cease terror operations abroad, dismantle the regime’s ballistic missile program, stop meddling in the affairs of countries in the region, improve their human rights record and disclose their clandestine nuclear pursuits.

U.S. officials, and European allies, are wise to maintain and expand the assertive policies aimed at exploiting Iran’s increasingly apparent vulnerabilities and seeking to further curtail the regime’s nefarious activities. This need not entail anything more than targeted sanctions, diplomatic isolation and support for pro-democracy activities — measures that are already in place but could be more broadly coordinated under new American leadership and with European support.

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