On recently circulated video from a November 4 campaign event in California, President Biden can be heard telling a questioner that the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran—which his administration came into office promising to renew—is now “dead, but we’re not going to announce it.” This comment, although clearly not intended as a policy statement, is of a piece with a variety of mixed and contradictory signals the White House has sent about the negotiations. “What,” asks Ben Cohen, “can explain this reticence” simply to admit that there will be no new agreement?
In part, it’s the old negotiating tactic of not showing your hand if you don’t absolutely need to; let the Iranians be the ones to take the blame for the failure of talks seems to be the idea here. Yet the Europeans are also a factor, in that the EU remains wedded to the goal of a revived [nuclear deal], despite announcing a new round of sanctions on the Iranian regime after the protests erupted. So long as the EU believes there is even the faintest hope of a breakthrough with the mullahs, the U.S. is unlikely to place an official stamp upon its commander-in-chief’s off-the-cuff comments.
This kind of ducking and weaving by the West sends the signal to Tehran that it still has a role to play, by arriving at an outcome that Western nations badly want. To deliver on a deal, the regime has to remain in power. Yet if our goal now—as Biden stated at the rally in California—is to “free Iran” and to offer every assistance we can to the ordinary Iranians driven by this goal, then we need to do the exact opposite. The robust sanctions that have been imposed on numerous Iranian individuals, military organizations, and government agencies need to be amplified by a freeze on diplomatic contacts with the Iranians.
Foremost, this would mean formally ending the negotiations in Vienna to resurrect the deal. Biden’s judgment that the deal is dead would thus become official policy. And as well as ending the nuclear talks, Western nations should suspend diplomatic contacts by pulling their ambassadors out of Tehran while leaving lower-level staff in place to monitor the repression of the protests.