On Iran, Biden Should Take 'No' for an Answer

Why is the administration negotiating in Vienna as Iran attacks American servicemen?

President Joe Biden / Getty Images

When it comes to Iran, President Joe Biden can't take "no" for an answer.

Consider last week's attack by Iranian proxies on a U.S. base in Syria's Deir el-Zour province, which injured four U.S. service members and caused two fires. This was the work of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a hybrid military-terrorist organization responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American soldiers over the past two decades. The Trump administration designated the group a foreign terrorist organization, which triggered a raft of punishing sanctions. Now Iran is demanding Biden remove those sanctions as a condition of negotiations in Vienna to restore the Iran nuclear deal.

According to the Washington Post's David Ignatius, the president himself is not budging, for now. His view is that the nuclear talks are distinct from America's efforts to counter Iranian terrorism. Nonetheless, European allies and some Biden administration officials have pressed for a compromise, a pledge from Iran to deescalate regional tensions and stop attacking Americans.

It's understandable that Iran would try to get as much as it can from a U.S. president desperate to return to a deal so weak that its limitations on uranium enrichment expire by the end of the decade. It's less explicable why Biden would continue negotiating with a partner that will not even meet face-to-face with its American counterpart.

This has forced the United States to rely on the good offices of Russian ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, Vladimir Putin's representative to the U.N. organizations at Vienna, to broker a return to the nuclear deal. Ulyanov is active on Twitter, where he recently claimed that Ukraine had blown up its own train station, an atrocity that left at least 50 dead. So much for treating Russia like a pariah.

We have heard from Biden officials that there is no cost to seeking a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program. The argument is that, at the very least, America looks like it's seeking peace, even if no deal can be reached, making it easier to rally allies to enforce sanctions against Iran if there is no deal.

But this endless diplomacy has very real costs, as the attack in Syria makes clear. The Iranians seem confident they can attack U.S. positions and injure U.S. forces without much blowback. U.S. Central Command acknowledged last year that the IRGC directed dozens of attacks in 2021 against U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria. The Biden administration has responded with two weak counterstrikes against Iranian proxies, leaving IRGC positions unscathed.

Or consider what message it sends that the administration continued negotiating for a nuclear deal with Iran after its military fired a barrage of missiles dangerously close to the U.S. consulate in Irbil, Iraq, last month. At the time, Iran claimed credit for the attack and said it was a response to Israeli attacks in Syria that killed two IRGC officers. And the Biden administration kept negotiating, even after the White House informed Congress in January of Iranian assassination plots against former Trump officials, including Mike Pompeo, Brian Hook, and John Bolton.

In light of this Iranian aggression, Biden's insistence on maintaining the IRGC's terror designation does not seem like toughness at all given that any nuclear deal reached in Vienna would result in a cash windfall for Iran's terror masters—regardless of the IRGC's designation, or lack thereof.

It would be a disaster for American interests and allies in the Middle East if the IRGC is the beneficiary of a new nuclear deal, as it was in 2015 under the Obama administration. Israel has already proven that it can foil Iran's nuclear ambitions through sabotage and assassination.

President Biden should instead focus on aiding those efforts while responding directly to the IRGC's attacks on U.S. positions. Pretending that negotiations with Iran are cost-free leaves the mullahs with the impression that they won't pay a price for their efforts to kill Americans. Worse, it may give the Russians the same idea.