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Biden’s Iran Deal Is Striking a Death Blow to U.S. Deterrence

March 16, 2022

Iranians are facing no consequence for firing missiles at or near American facilities. That’s a green light for more aggression.

Early Sunday, twelve ballistic missiles fired from Iran struck Erbil in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The missiles struck near a U.S. Consulate base that is currently in construction. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for an Israeli airstrike in Syria that killed at least two IRGC guards. While Kurdish officials say the U.S. Consulate was the target, Iranian state media claimed that the strikes were aimed at secret Israeli intelligence bases.

On Fox News Sunday, Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said she does not “believe that the consulate was actually the target of this missile attack” The IRGC stated that it was aiming at “the strategic center of the Zionist conspiracies in Erbil,” but it also connected the Israeli and U.S. presence in Iraq, according to the New York Times. Nick Carl, a senior analyst and Iran team leader at AEI Critical Threats Project, told National Review that Iranian leaders “have explicitly stated that they are going to hold accountable third parties that facilitate and support Israeli operations.”

The strike comes days after a lull in negotiations for a renewed Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration is trying to revive Obama’s JCPOA framework, which was cast aside when the Trump administration exited the Iran deal in 2018. But Biden’s negotiators have settled for a much weaker agreement than Obama’s, one that gives Iran a legitimate path to a nuclear weapon and likely frees up billions in sanctions relief.

The impending deal was already a stain on U.S. deterrence, but now the Biden administration is willing to overlook even ballistic-missile strikes from Iran. Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told National Review that despite the strikes this week, the Biden administration has a “clear vision of what they want with Iran,” and that seems to be “a deal centered on the JCPOA bargain.”

After denying that the Iranians were targeting the American consulate, Wendy Sherman promoted Biden’s version of the nuclear deal:

We would like all of the parties . . . to bring this to a close. . . . Imagine these Iranians with a nuclear weapon. We need to get that off the table so we can address their malign behavior in the Middle East.

Jake Sullivan voiced a similar opinion on CBS this weekend, saying that “the only thing more dangerous than Iran armed with ballistic missiles and advanced military capabilities is an Iran that has all of those things and a nuclear weapon.”

On Monday, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, claimed that Iran had violated Iraq’s sovereignty, and it “poses a threat to our partners in the region and, by extension, us.” He went on to say, “We have seen Iran . . . fund proxies . . . fund terrorist groups,” but “the basic point is that Iran would be able to do all these things . . . with far greater impunity” if it obtained a nuclear weapon.

The reasoning of Sherman, Sullivan, and Price is deeply flawed. For one, the deal doesn’t even stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board pointed out:

The deal won’t stop Iran from pursuing, or getting, a nuclear weapon. Iran could continue to make progress at secret sites that are excluded from international inspectors as it waits for the deal to expire.

The deal probably maintains the sunset clauses in the 2015 JCPOA, meaning that the limits on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programs will be lifted sooner rather than later. Under the proposed framework, and given Iran’s nuclear strides since 2015, their breakout time — the time it takes to produce enough fissile material for a bomb — would be only around six months.

The deal does nothing to address Iran’s destabilizing behavior, either. In fact, it greases the skids for more trouble. Take Iran’s ballistic-missile program; the ban on ballistics development in the 2015 JCPOA was originally eight years. Now, if this new deal were to pass with the same sunset clauses, Iran would have to wait only another year.

And what about Iran’s proxies and terrorist affiliates? The deal is not only expected to free up billions for Tehran to funnel to terrorist organization, but it also removes any economic penalties for doing so. In fact, after the 2015 JCPOA, Iran continued to support its terroristic proxies and partners, including Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2016 and 2017, before Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, the State Department designated Iran as the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism.” In their 2017 report on terrorism, they included a laundry list of Iranian infractions:

It maintained its terrorist-related and destabilizing activities through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hizballah. Iran is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining the legitimate governments of, and U.S. interests in, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. In particular, Iran and Hizballah are emerging from the Syria conflict emboldened and with valuable battlefield experience that they seek to leverage across the globe. IRGC leader Qasem Soleimani recruited and deployed Shia militias from diverse ethnic groups across the Middle East and South Asia to fight in defense of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Beyond the Middle East, Iran and its terrorist affiliates and proxies posed a significant threat and demonstrated a near-global terrorist reach. Notably, in June 2017, the FBI arrested two suspected Hizballah operatives in Michigan and New York who allegedly were conducting surveillance and intelligence gathering on behalf of the organization, including in the United States.

Biden’s framework — which, as noted above, is far weaker than Obama’s — would allow terrorism to flourish even more. The deal reportedly lifts terrorism sanctions, removes the IRGC’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization, and floods Iran with up to $130.5 billion to fund its terroristic proxies.

Sherman, Sullivan, and Price may talk about reining in Iran’s nuclear program before tackling regional destabilization, but they are encouraging both. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Iran would feel bold enough to shoot off ballistic missiles.

The use of ballistics is no coincidence, says Taleblu. “They’re not afraid to play the edge . . . they are using weapons of war in a signaling fashion.” It’s no wonder, given the Biden administration’s weak approach to the Middle East

Politicians across the aisle are starting to demand answers from the Biden administration.

On Tuesday, Republican Representatives Jim Banks (Indiana) and Joe Wilson (South Carolina) sent a letter to Biden stating that the “recent erosion of U.S. military deterrence against Iran is alarming.”

They added that the strike indicates that “Tehran fears neither a substantive U.S. military pushback, nor a breakdown in nuclear negotiations.”

Forty-nine Republican senators sent the White House a letter on Monday stating that they’ll “reverse” the deal as it now stands. After Sherman’s remarks on Fox News Sunday, Senator Jim Risch (R., Idaho), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came on the show and said that the administration is “living in an alternative universe” and that this deal is “worse” than the 2015 JCPOA and “will not last.”

Democrats are also starting to condemn Biden’s capitulatory approach. Even before the missile strikes, a bipartisan group of congressmen, including twelve Democrats, sent a letter to Biden saying that “it is hard to envision supporting an agreement along the lines being publicly discussed.”

Taleblu believes that, in the context of nuclear negotiations, the missile strikes are a “death knell” to U.S. deterrence. Accordingly, he characterizes Iran’s behavior as “risk tolerant.” “If you see Americans “constantly moving their bottom line,” he says, then the Iranians will “keep pushing.” There are plenty of reasons to scrap the current nuclear negotiations, but perhaps the most relevant is the message that the deal sends to Iran about its behavior: “The Islamic Republic will become bolder in the region and abroad, and we’re witnessing what bolder looks like when they can fire ballistic missiles at or near U.S. facilities and not fear any retribution or reprisal.”


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