Two Questions about President Biden’s Iran Strategy

February 25, 2021 | Elliott Abrams
About the author: Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points.

Examining the State Department spokesman Ned Price’s remarks on Monday regarding Washington’s approach to the Islamic Republic, Elliott Abrams detects two crucial points on which the administration has been unclear. The first relates to Price’s comment that, “if Iran returns to full compliance with the
[2015 nuclear] deal, the United States would be prepared to do the same.”

A return to the [nuclear agreement] would mean the lifting of the most significant economic sanctions on Iran. Once they are lifted—for example, sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, and on oil sales—how will the administration force or induce Iran to negotiate a new agreement that is “longer and stronger,” much less “negotiate follow-on agreements to cover other areas of concern, including Iran’s ballistic-missile program,” [as Price also promised it seeks to do]? Iran obviously does not want to do so and will agree only under enormous pressure, but the administration says its goal is to relieve that pressure.

The second question involves the spate of militia attacks American forces in Iraq. To his credit, Price was forthright that these militias are backed by Iran, but again the message was mixed. Abrams continues:

[S]ooner or later an American will be killed, sharpening the administration’s dilemma. . . . If Iran kills Americans and the president does not retaliate in some effective manner, he will be criticized for weakness—and rightly so.

As to [his statement that the U.S. will not] “risk an escalation,” Mr. Price is on dangerous territory indeed. . . . [I]t is very dangerous for the United States to appear to fear “escalation.” Price’s comment will be read around the world. . . . Iran has a great deal to lose from escalating a confrontation with the United States. If Iran appears fearless and the Biden administration by contrast fearful, there will be a price to pay for the United States. Price’s phrasing gives Iran every incentive to escalate its attacks on Americans in Iraq.

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