Fred Kaplan is puzzled by Biden’s failure to rejoin the nuclear deal quickly:
More puzzling than Trump messing things up, though, is why President Joe Biden – who, during the campaign, said he would bring back the deal – didn’t move to do so right after entering office this past January. He could have, accurately, blamed Trump for the mess, offered to lift the sanctions gradually if the Iranians dismantled their nuclear hardware gradually. Instead, for reasons that no one has clearly explained [bold mine-DL], the two sides got into a dispute over who should take the first step first.
I have no inside information about this, but it has seemed pretty clear that the reason that the Biden administration refused to go first and make concessions was that they were deathly afraid being attacked by Iran hawks for being “weak.” It was also because many Democratic foreign policy professionals had bought into the genuinely stupid idea that Biden should use Trump’s illegitimate sanctions as “leverage.” This is how we ended up with Biden administration officials talking about the fantasy of a “longer and stronger” follow-on agreement instead of focusing intently on reviving the existing one. They were so preoccupied with keeping Menendez and regional clients quiet that they missed the opportunity to undo Trump’s mess early on. Dragging their feet on sanctions relief also seems to be typical of the Biden administration’s foreign policy as a whole. Fearful of being accused of “rewarding” Iran, they presided over almost a year of drift and inaction while they kept saying that “the ball is in Iran’s court.” In other words, it was a combination of political cowardice and lack of flexibility.
For their part, the Iranian government insisted on the U.S. going first because the US was the party to the agreement that first violated. As far as they were concerned, the one that broke the deal should take the initiative to repair it. That was a fairly reasonable position for them to take, since they had been in compliance with the deal before the US launched its latest economic war on them and they had shown remarkable patience in waiting for a change in administrations so that the agreement could be salvaged. Once Raisi took over as president, that created additional delays and problems, because the new Iranian government was determined to be less flexible than its predecessor, so they ended up mirroring US inflexibility with their own. During this period, Israel continued its sabotage campaign, and Iran responded to this with further expansions of the nuclear program, and the Biden administration then used these responses to sabotage as pretexts for refusing to provide sanctions relief.
In the end, the problem boils down to one of pride and the pathetic fear of appearing “weak” in the eyes of domestic opponents. No one wanted to take a first step because that would supposedly reflect an eagerness to make concessions, and so instead we get a nine-month staring contest where everyone loses. There are few things weaker than refusing to salvage a good agreement because of a fear of seeming weak. Sometimes worthwhile diplomatic achievements require taking a little political risk, and the political leaders that can’t or won’t take those risks end up looking both weak and foolish.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.