Mike Pence Says Joe Biden's Iran Nuclear Strategy Shows 'Weakness'

Former Vice President Mike Pence has claimed President Joe Biden's efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran risk encouraging more regional aggression by Tehran.

Pence told a Washington, D.C. event on Thursday that Biden's "embrace" of the nuclear deal was dangerous for the U.S.

His decision to appear at the event organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—the political wing of the controversial People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK)—reiterates his hawkish stance on Iran.

"Peace follows strength," Pence told the attendees. "With our current administration's embrace of the JCPOA, their hesitation to condemn rockets being fired at our cherished ally Israel, and the heart breaking and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, our adversaries may be sensing weakness in the current American administration."

Pence added: "They may be emboldened to test our resolve.

"Weakness arouses evil."

The summit—attended by interventionist figures including former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman and former Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway—was called to condemn what NCRI called Iran's "nuclear defiance, terrorism, regional meddling," and the role of Iran's conservative President Ebrahim Raisi in a 1988 massacre of Iranian political dissidents.

Pence condemned the "tyranny" of the Iranian government and dismissed Raisi as a "brutal mass murderer," suggesting his election was a "sign of the regime's growing desperation and vulnerability."

Pence added: "His crimes must not go unpunished."

JCPOA talks remain stalled, despite President Biden's desire to revive the landmark nuclear deal that Trump ditched in 2018.

Since then, Iran has broken from the deal's restrictions and significantly expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium and its enrichment capabilities.

Iran's "breakout time"—i.e. how long it would take Tehran to build a nuclear bomb if it decided to do so—is disputed, though it is believed to be less than six months and possibly as low as a matter of weeks.

JCPOA talks in Vienna, Austria, faltered when Raisi came to power in August, taking over from President Hassan Rouhani who negotiated the 2015 deal with former President Barack Obama.

Iran's new chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said on Wednesday that talks are expected to resume by the end of November.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, however, said this week that Tehran did not wish to resume negotiations from where the Rouhani administration left off.

Meanwhile, tensions abound in the Middle East. U.S. troops and interests have been the target of semi-regular attacks by Iranian-allied militias in Iraq. Earlier this month, troops at a U.S. base in southern Syria came under drone attack which officials blamed on Tehran.

A National Security Council spokesperson told Newsweek: "As we have said many times, we are prepared to return to Vienna, and we believe that it remains possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on return to mutual full compliance with the JCPOA by closing the small number of issues that remained outstanding at the end of the sixth round of talks in June."

"As we have also been clear, this window will not remain open forever as Iran continues to take provocative nuclear steps, so we hope that they come to Vienna to negotiate quickly and in good faith."

Any success on the JCPOA will have to overcome fierce GOP opposition in the U.S. Most Republicans consider the deal an unacceptable capitulation and endorsement of Tehran's aggressive regional strategy.

Speaking at a NCRI meeting is one way to illustrate Pence's uncompromising stance on Iran and the JCPOA. Past speakers at NCRI events have included former national security adviser John Bolton, former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and most recently Pompeo.

His appearance is likely to draw criticism, too. Critics of the NCRI and MEK—both led my Maryam Rajavi since the disappearance of her husband Massoud Rajavi in 2003—dismiss the groups as fringe organizations with little support inside Iran. Tehran rejects the groups as terrorist organizations working on behalf of foreign powers.

The NCRI and MEK leadership has dismissed such criticism, framing itself as the most significant anti-regime force inside the country with a network of informants and activists.

The group publicly gave up its armed struggle in 2001 and says it has not engaged in any violent operations since.

The MEK was a proscribed terrorist organization in the European Union and U.S. until 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Pence described the MEK as "a well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative" to the current government in Iran. Rajavi, he said, is "an inspiration to the world."

Newsweek has contacted Pence's team to request comment on his relationship with the NCRI and MEK.

"While I no longer speak on the behalf of the United States government...I am confident I speak for the views of tens of millions of Americans," Pence told the crowd.

"And I tell you with certainty that the American people support your goal of establishing a democratic, secular, non-nuclear Iranian Republic that derives its powers from the consent of the governed."

Pence has long been hawkish on Iran, as were the majority of Trump's top team during his term. Pence backed Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, and later even pressed the European signatories to also ditch the deal.

After the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Pence peddled conspiracy theories linking Soleimani and Iran to the 9/11 attacks. Pence said Soleimani was an "evil man" and claimed Trump "took the world's most dangerous terrorist off the battlefield" via the Baghdad drone strike.

On Thursday, Pence again celebrated Soleimani's assassination. "Qassem Soleimani is gone," he said, to a standing ovation, describing the killed commander again as "the most dangerous terrorist in the world."

At times, reports framed Pence as a moderating check on Trump's aggressive instincts.

The New York Times reported in December 2020 that Pence—along with Pompeo—was among the advisers warning that a military strike against Iran's nuclear program could escalate into a wider conflict.

But other reports depict Pence as more hawkish. The New Yorker reported in July that Pence and Israel's then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed Trump to strike Iran in his final weeks in office.

In one meeting where Trump was not present, Pence was asked why he was so intent on military action. "Because they are evil," the vice president replied, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.

Trump's administration was criticized for the impact its "maximum pressure" strategy had on the people of Iran, particularly measures that humanitarian groups said blocked the import of vital medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, on Thursday Pence spoke of the crippled Iranian economy. "The Iranian regime has never been weaker than it is today," he said, noting runaway inflation, unemployment, and the falling value of the rial.

"Four out of five Iranians now live below the poverty line," Pence said.

Newsweek has contacted Iran's United Nations mission in Geneva for comment.

Update 10/29/21. 3:45 a.m. EDT: This article has been updated to include comment from the National Security Council.

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Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to a crowd during an event sponsored by the Palmetto Family organization on April 29, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford/Getty Images