In a short video clip that went viral across the globe this week, President Joe Biden concluded a speech in North Carolina with a stirring call for unity among Americans. Then he turned away from the podium and appeared to reach into thin air for a handshake. The clip amused Biden’s many detractors, who allege that the U.S. president is suffering from cognitive decline, though others dispute that interpretation of the video.
Whether or not it was a sign of his deteriorating mental acuity, the image of Biden seeming to shake hands with no one is an apt metaphor for his administration’s many diplomatic failures since coming to office. At the top of the list is Biden’s inability to achieve his basic aim of reentering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. That’s where the handshake comes in: It looked as if Biden was pronouncing himself ready to enter into an agreement, but with no one on the other end. While there have been questions about the functioning of Biden’s brain following such incidents, what really may be plaguing the president is a lack of heart.
In 2018, President Donald Trump exited the Iran nuclear agreement in a fit of pique aimed at undermining a key diplomatic achievement of President Barack Obama. Biden initially campaigned on a pledge to return to a deal that places Iran’s nuclear program under strict controls in exchange for sanctions relief.
It should have been an easy win, reversing a dangerous foreign policy decision made on a whim by Trump. However, more than a year into his presidency, Biden has utterly failed to find his way back into the deal. Instead of preserving one of the major diplomatic accomplishments of the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president, Biden is effectively siding with Trump’s position. The nuclear agreement is now on the brink of collapsing entirely — and the blame for it lies squarely with Biden.
The impasse in the current talks, according to reports, is an issue that Trump injected into the diplomatic mix exactly to prevent his successor from reviving the deal: the listing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
The 2019 listing of the group by Trump was not directly tied to the nuclear deal — he had already abandoned the agreement — but it made the deal virtually impossible to revive.
The benefit that the nuclear deal was intended to provide Iran was foreign investment and trade to rescue the Islamic Republic’s flagging economy. For better or worse, the IRGC is a major economic player in Iran, and treating it as a terrorist organization makes it highly unlikely that Western companies will feel comfortable doing business in the country at all.
In other words, making the IRGC a terror group effectively blocks whatever gains Iran would hope to make from cutting a deal in the first place. Reviving the agreement becomes a nonstarter — just as Trump planned.
Iran has demanded as part of the talks that the IRGC be removed from the terrorist list before reentering the deal. The Biden administration has refused, saying that if the group is to be removed, Iran will have to make additional concessions outside the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“If Iran wants sanctions-lifting that goes beyond the JCPOA, they’ll need to address concerns of ours that go beyond the JCPOA,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, when asked about the Revolutionary Guards’ possible delisting at a press conference Monday. “They will need to negotiate those issues in good faith with reciprocity.”
Price didn’t swear off delisting the IRGC, but in response to questions, he said that the United States “will use every appropriate tool to confront the IRGC’s destabilizing role in the region, including working closely with our partners in Israel.” Several U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are believed to be lobbying against a revived deal. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly hopes that the IRGC listing will be a “deal breaker” that prevents a return to the agreement.
Placing the IRGC on the terrorist list is mainly symbolic from the U.S. perspective. Iran is already designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, and the IRGC is subject to numerous sanctions that remain in effect regardless of whether it is specifically listed. The IRGC listing does, however, have serious repercussions for ordinary Iranians and even dual nationals of Western countries who were raised in Iran. The IRGC operates on a conscription basis and draws recruits from across Iranian society.
Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians are now potentially on the U.S. terrorist watchlist and likely to remain there as a long as the organization they served in is considered a terror group by the U.S. In addition to the economic concerns around sanctions, Iran thus has a strong motivation for seeing the IRGC, which is ultimately a branch of its military, delisted as part of any broader agreement.
“As far as the Iranians are concerned, there is definitely an element of pride where they don’t want to have a major branch of their military listed as a terrorist organization,” said Hooman Majd, author of “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay.” “Just as importantly, the JCPOA was also supposed to bring sanctions relief to Iran. That was not just relief in the sense that the Iranian central bank wouldn’t be sanctioned anymore; the deal was also specifically supposed to encourage foreign investment in Iran.”
“There is definitely an element of pride where they don’t want to have a major branch of their military listed as a terrorist organization.”
Majd was privy to discussions around the original JCPOA negotiation and believes that the Iranian government may walk away from a renewed agreement if it calculates that sanctions on the IRGC will prevent it from reaping the expected economic benefits.
“When other sanctions were placed on Iran in the 1990s, the IRGC became the de facto engineering arm of the Iranian government,” he said. “Everything down to the international airport in Tehran is run by the IRGC, and every aspect of business in Iran has some connection to the IRGC or former members of the IRGC. If the IRGC is listed as a terrorist organization, is Boeing going to sell them planes?”
The Iran nuclear deal was intended as a last best shot at avoiding another major crisis in the Middle East. Given the Trump administration’s obvious violation of a deal that the U.S. had signed with the support of its allies, Biden could have easily reentered the agreement upon taking office.
Instead, the U.S. waffled. It now risks restarting a conflict that the Obama administration had expended significant diplomatic and political capital to avert. Most tragic will be the fact that it was easily avoidable.
Biden may not have been grasping at the air following his speech in North Carolina earlier this week. If he fails to bring the U.S. back into an agreement in line with its own signed commitments on the Iran nuclear deal, though, the image of him aimlessly searching for a hand to shake will be symbolic of his own presidency.