The Folly of Biden’s Iran Strategy
The United States and Iran each wants to reenter the nuclear deal they struck in 2015 — also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — but neither wants to go first. During an interview with CBS on Sunday morning, Biden said that Tehran would have to stop enriching uranium before the U.S. lifts Trump-era sanctions targeting Iranian entities. That same morning, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif told CNN that he’s sticking with his country’s demands that Washington lift sanctions first. Although the dispute matters insofar as it is a test of Biden’s resolve, recent events show that the administration’s strategy misses the forest for the trees, giving short shrift to the need to constrain Iran’s missile program, which scored a major success with the launch of the Zuljanah rocket on February 1 and is continuing to progress. “The launch of the Zuljanah SLV [satellite-launch vehicle] will complicate the new Biden administration’s efforts at incorporating missiles into nuclear talks,” said Benham Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Iran has a diverse missile arsenal that must be accounted for in any diplomatic effort.” Although the launch was conducted under the auspices of Iran’s civil satellite program, this only lent it a thin shred of legitimacy. The Pentagon’s 2020 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report made clear that rockets such as the Zuljanah SLV could easily be a key step on the path to intercontinental ballistic missiles. “Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM, because space launch vehicles (SLV) use inherently similar technologies,” the report concluded. One of those key technologies is the solid-propellant engine that powered last week’s Zuljanah SLV launch. The use of a solid-fuel motor is unusual: Liquid-fuel engines are widely regarded by experts as more appropriate for SLV launches, while solid-propellant rockets can be readied for battle more quickly. “Iran’s SLV program opens the door for longer-range missile missions, and teaches the regime critical lessons about thrust, staging, engine design, and more,” Taleblu said. The Biden administration understands this. A State Department spokesperson told AFP last week that the U.S. is “concerned” by Iran’s SLV launches “given these programs’ ability to advance Iran’s ballistic missile development.” Which is why the current standoff over reentering the nuclear deal is a red herring: Even if negotiators do reach agreement on whether the lifting of U.S. sanctions or the limiting of Iranian uranium enrichment comes first, Iran’s missile program will remain unaffected. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the administration’s stance toward Iran’s ballistic-missile ambitions, stating that the U.S. considered Iran’s missile-development activities to be illegal, and that it would continue to work to prevent nonproliferation violations. “Our goal is not only to have Iran come back into full compliance with the JCPOA, but then to use the JCPOA, which we would seek to in the first instance lengthen and strengthen, as a platform for follow-on agreements to include other areas of Iran’s malign activities” including Iran’s ballistic-missile program, Price said during the department’s daily briefing. Representative Jim Banks, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee and a noted congressional Iran hawk, warned that the “dangerous policy” of reentering the JCPOA would forfeit U.S. leverage to constrain Iran’s ballistic-missile development and support of regional terrorism. The Zuljanah launch is “proof that the regime’s ultimate goal is an ICBM” and “also illustrates again why, as former Secretary of State Pompeo laid out, any deal with Iran cannot just deal with the nuclear file but must also stop the regime’s ballistic-missile program and support for terrorism,” Banks told National Review. “Conservatives will continue to oppose, and work to reverse, any sort of sanctions relief to Iran unless it stops supporting terrorism, ends its regional destabilization, and stops its ballistic-missile program,” he added. Although Biden doesn’t need the support of congressional Republicans to lift sanctions, Iran has said plainly that it has no intention of making concessions on the issue of its missile program, even if the two sides agree to reenter the JCPOA. During his CNN interview on Sunday, Zarif declared that any curtailment of the missile program is out of the question, asserting that Obama foreign-policy officials brought on to serve under Biden, such as National-Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, “should know better.” In the 2015 agreement, Zarif said, “We agreed on what to deal with and what not to deal with.” In other words, if the Biden administration intends to address Iran’s potential pursuit of ICBMs only after it reaches an agreement on restarting the 2015 nuclear deal, it will almost certainly be in for a rude awakening.