Why Iran Negotiations Will Go Nowhere

Why Iran Negotiations Will Go Nowhere

Senator Marsha Blackburn has not devoted much of her time in office to Iran policy. But this week the Tennessee Republican offered some clarity on the issue when she introduced a bill aimed at preventing President Joe Biden from returning the U.S. to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“It’s time for Biden to wake up and realize that the U.S. cannot negotiate an honest agreement with Iran because they are a fanatical, anti-American regime,” her statement reads. “No amount of negotiating or ‘indirect discussions’ can change that.”

In a sense, Blackburn blundered. Democrats have long criticized former President Donald Trump’s policy of sanctioning Iran. Trump said the sanctions were meant to put pressure on Iran to agree to a better deal, but Democrats said they were a thinly disguised way to force regime change.

Now Blackburn has let the mask slip: The problem with Iran, she says, is the regime itself. It will never agree to stronger conditions for a nuclear agreement — such as a ban on missile development, the abolition of sunsets on uranium enrichment levels or an end to Iran’s support for regional aggression.

At the same time, Blackburn is on to something. If the Biden administration succeeds in the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna, one unavoidable consequence will be a windfall for Iran’s war machine. Tens of billions of dollars owed to Iran (mainly from the sale of oil and gas) remain locked in overseas bank accounts because of U.S. sanctions. Iran will receive that money when the sanctions are lifted.

So a deal that seeks to prevent the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism from obtaining a nuclear weapon will provide Iran with money to sponsor more terrorism. This is not a flaw with the deal so much as a flaw with the regime.

Unfortunately, Blackburn’s actual legislation does little to address the problem she has identified. Her bill would prevent federal funds from being spent on rejoining the 2015 Iran deal and require Biden and any future president to submit any deal to the Senate as a treaty, requiring two-thirds approval. Those are laudable goals. But while they make it harder to lift sanctions on Iran, they don’t increase the chances of success for Iran’s democratic opposition.

To do that, Blackburn (and for that matter the Biden administration) should consider a new approach. One idea would be not to release the billions now frozen in overseas accounts until Iran agreed to hold a referendum — monitored by the U.N. — to change its constitution and eliminate the unaccountable position of supreme leader. That constitutional change has circulated among Iranian reformers for nearly two decades, and in recent years has been endorsed by a slew of dissidents and human rights activists, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Another idea would be to work directly with humanitarian organizations in Iran to reduce the harm caused by sanctions to supplies of food and medicine. Give those goods directly to Iranian organizations that are independent from the regime. Biden could also lift some banking restrictions to make it easier for Iranian diaspora groups to send money to labor unions and dissidents still in Iran.

These proposals would signal that the U.S. does not intend to punish the Iranian people for the proliferation and terrorism of the regime that oppresses them. It would also provide a path to the full economic normalization that Iranians themselves so desperately want.

America’s current approach offers only false hope in this regard. Even if all the sanctions are lifted, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will pressure banks and oil companies to stay away from Iran’s economy as a condition for doing business in their countries. Meanwhile, companies that choose to invest in Iran will still have to weigh the risks that any Iranian dual nationals that work for them are at risk of arbitrary arrest, as has happened time and again in Iran since the 2015 nuclear deal. Biden’s policy also offers false hope on nuclear security, as the best he can get will be an Iranian return to enrichment limits that expire by the end of the decade.

Six years ago, there was a credible argument that the alternative to former President Barack Obama’s flawed nuclear deal was a regional war. But Israel has shown that sabotage can set back Iran’s nuclear program without the region spiraling into open warfare. That sabotage has purchased precious time for Biden to focus U.S. policy on the problem at the center of the Iranian nuclear crisis: the Iranian regime.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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