Reviews | On Iran, Biden should reverse Trump’s imaginary political art
After countless ups and downs and near-death scrapes, negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal seem to hang on one final disagreement: an endgame demand from Tehran for the the Islamic revolution be removed from the American list. foreign terrorist organizations.
On this issue probably hangs the last opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.
The Biden administration has rightly objected that the deal with Iran, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), purposely deals only with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. It does not address Iran’s subversion of other nations in the region, its longstanding support for terrorism, or any other contentious issue. The JCPOA was always intended to respond to the main threat to stability posed by the Islamic republic: its ambition to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Because this threat is most likely to ignite regional, and possibly nuclear, conflict, and because an omnibus deal addressing all of Iran’s malign activities was deemed too difficult to achieve, negotiations have always had a limited scope.
Although the issue has become politically supercharged, with Iranian hawks on both sides ready to pounce if the Biden administration does anything that suggests weakness in the face of terrorism, a sober long-term view is needed here. Iranian-backed terrorism is a serious problem, but the designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization was an incredibly unserious decision in the first place, a sanction that exerted no perceptible pressure on the group or Iran. in general.
Instead, it’s an artifact of the last administration’s bizarre approach, marked mostly by empty symbolism, tantrums and childish displays of resentment meant to communicate maximum antipathy. It had nothing to do with promoting American interests.
This was evident in other contexts: cutting off almost all aid to the Palestinians because they did not welcome President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Or cut aid to Central American countries that have been unable to stop the flow of migrants north. The terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guards was another in this series of amateurish efforts to punish a hated adversary.
Indeed, the practical value of the 2019 designation was nil; this decision did not limit Iranian action in any way, as Iran has been under sanctions as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. In fact, since 2007, the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force has been sanctioned for the aid it has provided to groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. This designation – along with the state sponsorship list – makes it a criminal act to support the IRGC and block any assets the group may have that are held by US financial institutions. The 2019 terrorist designation does the same thing – nothing more, nothing less.
Treasury Department reports tell the story well. In 2019, the year the Trump administration announced the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation, the IRGC’s total assets blocked stood at $1,121,760. According to Treasury reports, blocked IRGC assets in fact fall the following year at $1,049,801. (The report says nothing based on that decline.) At the time of the designation, State Department official Brian Hook boasted that it would lead to prosecutions of those providing material support to the IRGC. . But the designation did not result in any successful prosecution. While the administration promised a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the designation was just another imaginary ploy by Trump.
It is fair to ask: if the latest terrorist designation has no impact, why is Iran insisting that it be lifted? There is no simple answer. The Iranian regime might believe that IRGC leaders and Iranian companies will benefit financially, although this will not be the case if the United States maintains the policy of strict enforcement of other existing sanctions. Tehran, no doubt, wants to win every iota of sanctions relief it can get ahead of a potential 180 degree turn in US policy if a Trump Republican wins the White House in 2024. Or maybe it’s it is just another inexplicable test set up by Iran’s isolated and ideologically steeped leadership.
Either way, Iran’s negotiating tactics threaten to prevent it from obtaining sanctions relief for most of its legitimate businesses – those not controlled by the Revolutionary Guards – which could in turn revitalize an economy that was damaged by the wall-to-wall reimposition of sanctions after the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA. But the history of US-Iranian relations has been plagued by misunderstandings and missed signals for decades.
As the 2022 midterm elections approach, the removal of the Revolutionary Guards from the terrorist list would surely be used as a cudgel against the Democrats. This threat is one of the reasons the Biden administration is denying the Iranian request. The decision makes short-term political sense.
But the final decision – which has serious implications for the future of the Middle East – must take a longer-term view. Trump, after all, said the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was the first step toward ending Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, he got the opposite. Iran has taken the lead and dramatically reduced the time it will take to assemble a bomb.
If Iran does not move in the talks, we should not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the illusion created by Trump that this terrorism designation matters. It’s not. But an Iran that continues its march toward nuclear capability matters in the most important way possible.