Hidden behind the headlines on Ukraine, the Biden administration just moved one alarming step closer to war with Iran. According to Israel’s Channel 13, the U.S. has agreed to participate in Israel’s large-scale drill simulating a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities later this month. The Times of Israel noted that report was unsourced, but according to Axios, Israeli officials “confirmed that there will be U.S. participation.” (The Pentagon did not respond to Axios' request for comment immediately.)
If the report turns out to be true, it will mark the first time that U.S. refueling planes take part in such an exercise with Israeli fighter jets. This suggests that Biden is moving further than any U.S. president in signaling approval for Israel to start war with Iran, despite his promise to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, a multilateral agreement that prevented both an Iranian bomb and a region-wide war with Iran.
Tehran will read an Israeli strike on Iran to effectively be an American declaration of war.
There can be little doubt about the signal Washington would be sending Tehran by participating in these Israeli drills: If and when Israel strikes Iran, it will have done so with the approval, assistance, and direct or indirect participation of the United States. Tehran will read an Israeli strike on Iran to effectively be an American declaration of war.
This is a major break from past U.S. policy, and Biden's apparent willingness to side with Israel's hawkishness against Iran is more in line with Trump-era thinking on Iran than it is with Obama- or even Bush-era policy. The Obama administration worked diligently to prevent Israel from bombing Iran, recognizing that Israel’s action would spark a regional war that would pull the U.S. deeper into entrapment in the Middle East.
Former President Barack Obama made his opposition to such Israeli adventurism public precisely to signal to Tehran that the U.S. didn’t approve of it. In fact, the Obama White House repeatedly pressed the Israelis to at least give the U.S. a reasonable heads-up if it were to take military action against Iran, out of concern that Iran would react to Israeli bombs by striking U.S. soldiers in the region. (Israel refused to agree to this.)
And prior to Obama, President George W. Bush — who otherwise was notoriously hawkish on Iran — also pushed back against Israeli plans to attack Iran.
I don’t believe Biden wants war with Iran. Nor do I believe he wants Israel to strike Iran. This is why it is all the more puzzling that he would agree to partake in these Israeli drills. But it does fit a pattern: Biden heavily criticized former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and opposed his “maximum pressure” strategy seeking to force Iran to capitulate by crushing its economy through unprecedented sanctions. Yet, 18 months into his presidency, Biden has yet to shift away from Trump’s sanctions policy. A combination of factors — from not wanting to spend political capital on this issue to seeking to avoid an open political conflict with Israel — appear to explain Biden’s malpractice on this issue.
The question is: How long can Biden stick to Trump’s failed Iran policy without having to take ownership and responsibility for its continued failure?
Another example of Biden continuing wrongheaded Trump-era policy on Iran is the debacle over the current listing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, as a terrorist organization. It has become the key sticking point for the U.S. to rejoin the nuclear agreement, but completely needlessly.
Back in 2017, Antony Blinken, who is now Biden's secretary of state, penned an op-ed in The New York Times arguing against designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, pointing to the escalatory potential of such a decision. He told CNN then that this was precisely why both the Bush and Obama administrations had rejected this move.
But after withdrawing from the Iran deal, the Trump administration put the IRGC on the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations anyway, in a cynical and transparent move to render any U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal more difficult. Since the IRGC was already sanctioned under U.S. law, the designation had only the symbolic effect of further stigmatizing and angering Iran. Proponents of the move admitted as much publicly. In 2019, the National Security Action group — which was co-founded by Jake Sullivan, who is now Biden's national security adviser — blasted the decision as a “dangerous and self-defeating tactic that endangers our troops and serves nothing but the Trump administration’s goal of destroying the Iran deal, which is all that stands in the way of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.”
We see a pattern in which the Biden team blasts Trump’s moves, yet refuses to undo them.
Now Tehran wants the IRGC to be taken off the list before the resumption of the nuclear deal with Biden, but Biden has refused to do so out of fear of looking weak.
As I have written elsewhere, both Tehran and Washington have unnecessarily painted themselves into a corner on this issue. Both sides believe it is too costly for them politically to back down, even though the collapse of the nuclear deal will create far greater headaches for both. Neither side is being reasonable; both sides would benefit from withdrawing their demands on this matter.
But here again, we see a pattern in which the Biden team blasts Trump’s moves, yet refuses to undo them.
If the nuclear deal collapses, most likely either Iran would get the bomb or Biden would bomb Iran. Biden will own both of these disastrous outcomes. Though he would try to pin this on Trump, he won’t be able to put all the blame on Trump despite the clear responsibility the former reality TV star has for withdrawing from the agreement in the first place. After largely continuing Trump’s Iran policy for almost 18 months, Biden has begun to own it.
Even some of the U.S. strongest allies in Europe are losing their patience with Biden. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and former E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana accused Biden of “passivity vis-a-vis Iran” in The Washington Post this week. “It’s puzzling,” they wrote, “that, after running on a return to the nuclear deal and promising that 'America is back,' Biden has been slow-walking diplomacy that U.S. allies strongly support.”
One of the people who shared the hard-hitting Washington Post op-ed on Twitter was Enrique Mora — the current E.U. negotiator who has acted as a mediator between Biden and Tehran for the past year and a half.
The message to Biden was crystal clear: You will soon own this policy.