If it turns out that Joe Biden is truly the president elect, one of the first things he might do is thank President Trump for planning new sanctions against Iran in the post-election period.
Elliott Abrams, Mr. Trump’s envoy for Iran and Venezuela, is touring allied Mideast countries this week, coordinating with Israel, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia new measures against Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo will follow Mr. Abrams next week. A new set of American sanctions will reportedly be announced weekly until January 20.
Following Mr. Abrams’s briefing with the Israeli press Sunday, reports emerged that the new sanctions will target Iranian entities beyond the nuclear field, that is, not directly involved in Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead, America will seek to punish terrorist sponsors, missile developers, and violators of human rights.
Such sanctions would be difficult for Mr. Biden to reverse. The articles of appeasement that the Obama-Biden administration and five other world powers struck with the Islamic Republic, narrowly concentrated on nuclear issues. That was known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Other malign Iranian activities were pushed aside.
This is no longer 2015, though, and non-nuclear issues are now front and center, in addition to renewed nuclear efforts. Tehran has increased its military aggression in the Gulf, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and beyond. It has amped up development of ballistic missiles that a UN resolution frowns upon. The Islamic Republic’s gross human rights atrocities, as in the execution of Olympic wrestler Navid Afkari, are widely publicized.
Not all sanctions addressing those non-nuclear malign activities are directed from Washington. As the international chess federation meets this week, a group that includes the Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad and chess legend Garry Kasparov promotes a motion to exclude Iranian players from the world championship of the game — initially popularized in ancient Persia — as long as they refuse to face Israeli competitors.
Could Mr. Biden, who has vowed that in foreign policy his administration won’t “turn our back” on America’s values, oppose such a drive in good conscience? Would he reverse other sanctions just because Mr. Trump, or a Republican-led Congress, imposed them? How about listing jailers of Afkari’s brothers? Or members of the regime responsible for sentencing Ms. Alinejad’s brother, Alireza, to eight years in prison?
No doubt some Obama-era foreign policy aides will advise dropping all sanctions for the sake of rejoining the JCPOA. Yet, Mr. Biden vowed that “with our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
Those other issues, he wrote in October on the CNN website, include “calling out the regime for its ongoing violations of human rights,” pushing back against Tehran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region, and strengthening Israel’s ability to defend itself against the Islamic republic.
Yes, Mr. Biden added, his administration will “continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran's human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.”
Top officials in Tehran scoff at hints that the next administration would tweak the JCPOA to include issues the Obama-era deal had failed to address. They say that America must rejoin the deal as agreed at the time. Some would-be Biden hands undoubtedly agree.
Yet, judging by Mr. Biden’s pre-election pronouncement, he might well recognize that the Iranian regime, under increased pressure at home and abroad, is in no position to fight changes in the JCPOA.
Iran’s economy, after all, is collapsing. The authorities’ record on handling natural disasters, including the Corona pandemic, is dismal. Popular anger at aggression abroad while ordinary Iranians struggle to make ends meet is at all time high.
Meanwhile, the Mideast map now includes a strengthened arc of American friends, including an anti-Iran club of countries, some of which Messrs. Abrams and Pompeo are visiting currently.
Bravado by Iranian officials aside, their hold on power is tenuous at best. It all adds up to a major advantage for American negotiators seeking to strike a new, improved deal.
“It doesn’t really matter who is president on January 20, in the sense that there’s going to be a negotiation with Iran anyway,” Mr. Abrams told Israeli reporters Sunday. “That was the intention of the Trump administration.”
The sanctions Mr. Trump intends to impose in the lead up to inauguration can be reversed, Mr. Abrams acknowledged, “but it’s hard for me to see how any president would really do that without a change in Iran’s behavior.”
If Mr. Biden really wants to build on the JCPOA, he would avoid a bromide of its outdated and failed provisions, and use any new sanctions to increase his leverage in negotiations with Tehran. He may not acknowledge it in public, but Mr. Trump’s lame-duck Iran moves are calculated to help whoever is president deal with Iran.
Certainly it would be better if Mr. Biden changed those goals altogether, calling instead for an end to the clerics’ stranglehold on Iran’s politics, but there’s no indication that he’s there yet.