Drowned out by news of the horrific school shooting in Texas and the ongoing war in Ukraine, last week’s congressional testimony by President Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, passed largely unnoticed. That’s unfortunate. Overflowing with empty talking points bearing little relation to reality, it underscored that the administration’s Iran policy has reached a dangerous dead end — one that Biden’s team either doesn’t recognize or refuses to deal with.
Malley’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee represented the first time that the administration had been required to account publicly for its yearlong effort to entice Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Predictably, Malley spent a lot of time blaming President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal for the subsequent escalation of Iran’s nuclear program and regional aggression. Fair enough. But he studiously avoided the uncomfortable reality that Iran’s most worrisome nuclear advancements — including its unprecedented decision to enrich a bomb’s worth of uranium to 60 percent — have occurred on Biden’s watch. Ditto the fact that Iran-backed attacks targeting U.S. troops and partners in the Middle East doubled during Biden’s first year in office as compared with Trump’s last year in office. Iran’s behavior might have been bad under Trump’s maximum-pressure policy, but it has gotten significantly worse under Biden’s more accommodationist approach.
While acknowledging that, even after eight rounds of exhaustive diplomacy in Vienna, the prospects of returning to the JCPOA “are, at best, tenuous,” Malley offered no hint that the administration is contemplating any course correction. In defending a continuation of its current approach, his argument boiled down to this: “Are we better off reviving the nuclear deal and, in parallel, using all other tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic and otherwise — to address Iran’s destabilizing policies? Or are we better off getting rid of the deal and banking on a policy of pressure alone to get Iran to accept more onerous nuclear constraints and curb its aggressive parties.”
There’s much to take issue with in that formulation. The first concerns the core question of how well American interests would actually be served by reviving an agreement that grants Iran’s rulers an enormous financial windfall that would immediately be put to use funding terrorist proxies across the Middle East and increasing its arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones (already the region’s largest), while conferring international legitimacy on a nuclear program that, in accordance with the JCPOA’s terms, will be free to expand without restraint well before the end of this decade.
Setting aside that non-trivial concern, what about Malley’s suggestion that the administration is coupling its nuclear diplomacy with simultaneous efforts to use “all other tools at our disposal” to push back on Iran’s malign behavior? For anyone who has followed the Iran issue closely, his claim is sharply at odds with the reality of Biden’s actual policy.
Take the issue of sanctions enforcement. Iran’s oil sales have been allowed to nearly double from their lows under Trump, averaging around 1 million barrels per day this year, with the vast majority being bought by China. As a result, Iran’s accessible foreign-currency reserves have exploded. At the end of Trump’s term, the regime was almost broke, down to its last $4 billion; after a year of Biden’s lax enforcement, its financial cushion had ballooned to a much more comfortable $31 billion. Is it any wonder why Iran’s rulers have been perfectly content to drag out the negotiations in Vienna and stick to their exorbitant demands for U.S. concessions?
The accuracy of Malley’s depiction of U.S. policy fared no better with respect to security matters. He described a world in which the administration is “working day in, day out with Israel, in particular, but also with our European allies on a strategy to counter, deter, and respond to any Iranian action, whether it has to do with attacks against our partners, its UAV program, its ballistic missile program.” In these efforts, he added, “we are not leaving any stone unturned.”
If only. The list of unanswered Iranian attacks against U.S. personnel, interests, and partners in the last year is too long to list in full. Among the greatest hits would be a complex drone strike on a U.S. base in Syria last October, clearly intended to kill U.S. troops. Another would be Iran’s brazen firing of a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. allies in Iraqi Kurdistan just two months ago, about a mile from a new American consulate. Or multiple missile and drone attacks earlier this year against the United Arab Emirates, one of Washington’s oldest and most important regional friends, which also targeted thousands of U.S. forces based in the country. There may be many ways to characterize this pattern of failing to retaliate against an aggressor’s repeated efforts to kill and maim. But “using all tools at our disposal” to “counter, deter, and respond to any Iranian action” is not one of them.
Indeed, despite Malley’s best efforts to paint a picture of an administration committed to the practice of coercive diplomacy, the truth did out when Malley was pressed on the administration’s willingness to use force to back up Biden’s commitment that Iran would never get nuclear weapons on his watch. Malley’s response? A “military option cannot resolve this issue.” Further, “The only real solution here is a diplomatic one.” Finally, “We know that a military strike is not an answer to Iran’s nuclear program.”
So much for using all instruments of national power or doing whatever it takes to stop Iran from acquiring the bomb. Moreover, even if this is what Biden and Malley truly believe about the utility of U.S. force, why would the administration communicate that publicly to Iran’s hard-line leaders? What possible purpose could be served by surrendering the extraordinary leverage of a credible U.S. military threat during a difficult negotiation with a recalcitrant enemy?
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) made it clear how unconvincing he found Malley’s testimony. “I heard a lot of it focus on the Trump administration’s decision,” he noted, while pointing out that Biden has been in charge of Iran policy since January 2021. Noting that multiple officials had been warning for months that the administration was “weeks” away from breaking off negotiations, Menendez implored Malley to explain “what is your plan B? Because I get no sense of what that plan is.”
Exactly right. There is no Plan B. Malley made clear that the administration is prepared to keep on its current course — Plan A — “to get back into the JCPOA for as long as our assessment is that its nonproliferation benefits are worth the sanctions relief that we would provide.” While adding that “being at the table doesn’t mean we’re waiting” to act against Iran, Malley was at a loss to identify any specific steps — beyond a handful of token sanctions — that the administration has taken to push back in a sustained way against Iran’s escalating nuclear expansion and regional aggression.
In other words, the Biden administration in reality is not acting but waiting. It doesn’t want to declare dead the talks that Iran has used as cover for 13 months to reach the cusp of nuclear-threshold status because doing so would require it to pivot to a Plan B, which it doesn’t have, and doesn’t want to have. Plan B would necessarily involve some willingness to confront Iran — directly or through U.S. allies — with new, sustained economic and military pressure to end its nuclear advancements, drone attacks, and hostage-taking, which the administration is evidently loath to do.
None of this is likely to satisfy our regional allies, especially Israel, which cannot remain, for its own security and even existence, as patient as the Biden administration and is likely to feel compelled to take matters into its own hands to prevent a nuclear Iran, thus triggering a serious conflict that could spread to a regional war.
Our organization, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), just issued a report that calls on the administration to pivot to a Plan B, with detailed recommendations on what such a strategy would entail. Key elements would include the vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions to cripple Iran’s oil revenues, including a willingness to punish Chinese firms for their purchases; working with our European partners to trigger the JCPOA’s powerful “snapback” provision that would resurrect all United Nations sanctions on Iran; and censuring Iran at the International Atomic Energy Organization for its stonewalling of international inspectors investigating its suspect nuclear activities.
The report also urges President Biden to publicly declare a recommitment to U.S. defense of the region’s security, including the use of force to prevent the Iranian regime from developing nuclear weapons. At the same time, the United States should strengthen the military capabilities of its regional partners and take full advantage of the Abraham Accords to build a new U.S.-led security framework that can carry more of the burden in countering Iranian aggression. Particular priority should be given to ensuring that Israel has all the capabilities it needs to act on its own to prevent a nuclear Iran, including the swift transfer of KC-46A aerial refueling tankers, large quantities of precision-guided munitions and bunker-busting bombs, and more missile-defense batteries and interceptors.
Malley’s testimony exposed a sober reality. The administration’s Iran policy has run its course and failed. Refusing to recognize that fact and shift course only guarantees that the Iranian threat will worsen, leading to the nightmare of a nuclear Iran or war. Just as Congress pushed the Biden administration to adopt a more robust policy toward Ukraine, Congress should now pressure President Biden to pivot to a realistic, tough-minded Plan B toward Iran, which leverages all elements of U.S. power and all U.S. partners to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
John Hannah, a former national-security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is JINSA’s President and CEO.
Originally published in National Review.