It is August 2022 and the Biden administration is still focused on Ukraine as the war there enters its seventh month. The Biden administration and the Democrats are increasingly worried about their grim prospects in the upcoming midterm elections. And lurking behind these dire scenarios, the United States and Iran have been operating in a tense truce for months in the absence of a nuclear deal.
Iran has abstained from weapons grade enrichment while the Biden team has declined to reduce or rigidly enforce the Trump-era sanctions they inherited. There is still some discussion of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but for all intents and purposes it is in a coma, never to be revived. President Biden and his advisers believe if they can just get through to the midterms, they’ll finally move to resolve that pesky Iran file.
Trump was the arsonist who tried to burn down the nuclear deal, but Biden has just lingered around the scene of the crime rather than put out the fire.
Except, they’ve run out of time. Israel surprises their U.S. counterparts by announcing an imminent assassination of a senior Iranian security official. Like when Israel sabotaged the Natanz nuclear site after the first week of multilateral nuclear negotiations in Biden’s first year in office, there is not enough time for Biden to convince Israel to abort the operation, and instead decides to brace for blowback. The assassination spurs speculation of wider regional conflict and even World War III and sends markets into a tailspin, as Iran vows vengeance and all but declares war.
Iran first kicks out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and announces its intention to formally withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and begin enriching to weapons grade levels. With reports emerging that Iran is readying retaliatory strikes on U.S. bases and partners and the United States moving aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf, gasoline prices soar close to $6.00 per gallon across the nation, with so-called regional partners in the Persian Gulf refusing to increase output to offset the energy crisis.
The Biden administration thought it had a lid on the Iran issue heading into the midterms, but now the president has a major decision to make between no-win options. Does he order preemptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, sparking a bloody regional war and more economic blowback? Or does he hold out in hopes that the situation deescalates before Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold?
A situation like this is not so hard to imagine. Assuming the Biden administration and Iran fail to clear the last hurdle in the nuclear negotiations, which is in fact a Trump-era poison pill that was designed to push Iran out of compliance with the deal and block a Democratic administration from restoring it, a crisis could be sparked from any number of directions. Iran could breach a red line on its nuclear program, or an Iran-linked proxy could strike U.S. forces in Iraq, or there could be a naval clash in the Persian Gulf.
Right now, however, the Biden administration is demanding non-nuclear concessions from Iran in exchange for rescinding the foreign terrorist organization designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran is refusing, and sticking to its position that the designation be removed as part of a mutual return to compliance with the nuclear deal. If compromise options are being pursued, there is little indication that they are gaining traction.
It is a frustrating state of affairs for the president who campaigned on restoring U.S. and Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement, and who also voiced support for easing the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden administration has never found the time or political will to resolve the stand-off, beginning with his first day in office when he failed to make any move — symbolic or otherwise — to break with President Trump’s maximum pressure approach.
The nuclear impasse has grown more difficult to resolve since then. Iran has switched administrations to a hardline government, which may have increased threats toward U.S. persons and interests and certainly has drawn a harder line at the negotiating table. While Biden has kept sanctions in place, Iran’s nuclear program has steadily advanced to new heights, spurred on by Israeli sabotage in 2021 that Biden failed to stop. And now the negotiations have become stuck on a largely symbolic sanction that was expressly intended to interfere with Biden’s diplomacy. Restoring the JCPOA is still the position supported by the vast majority of the American public and the Democratic caucus, but as the midterms approach, elements in his party will get more nervous about the politics surrounding the agreement, even though it is a fight Biden and his supporters would win.
Trump was the arsonist who tried to burn down the nuclear deal, but Biden has just lingered around the scene of the crime rather than put out the fire. The increasingly likely consequence is that he will pay the costs for the arson, in the form of a disastrous war or Iran securing a nuclear weapon. Republicans would have a field day in either Biden being too weak to stop Iran from going nuclear or too reckless for pursuing a war Trump avoided. And Biden would only have himself to blame.
All of these disasters could be avoided. There’s a good deal on the table, if Biden can find the courage to save it.