Negotiating Against Ourselves on Iran | Opinion

In the past week, Iranian proxy forces attacked an American military base in Iraq, killing a U.S. contractor and injuring five others, while the Iranian government threatened to pursue nuclear weapons and cut off key nuclear inspections if it felt cornered. The Biden administration's response: reversing American sanctions policy on Iran at the UN, including permitting the immediate transfer of weapons to the Iranian regime and letting more Iranian diplomats into the U.S.

This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever. Rewarding bad behavior by the Iranian regime is exactly what got us in this mess in the first place. It was in the aftermath of revelations of secret Iranian nuclear facilities, and under the threat of increased uranium enrichment and a potential "sprint to a bomb," that the Obama administration entered into the ill-conceived nuclear deal back in 2015.

That deal, which the Biden administration has now made clear it wants to restore immediately, had many deep-seated flaws, including its removal of carefully crafted American and allied sanctions on Iran while limiting Iran's obligations to a handful of nuclear issues. The Obama deal ignored decades of Iranian support for Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Assad regime in Syria—which repeatedly attacked its own people with chemical weapons—and proxy forces in Iraq that killed hundreds of Americans over more than a decade. The 2015 deal likewise reversed an international ban on ballistic missile testing by Iran and permitted it to continue research on advanced nuclear technologies, putting in place a bizarre regime of quasi-self-inspection for suspected nuclear weapons sites.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with portrait of Ayatollah Khamenei ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Not surprisingly, an unconditional return to the original 2015 deal is also what Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, want. Some of the original deal's terms have already expired, like the longstanding international ban on arms sales to Iran, which ostensibly went away pursuant to the deal last year. Many other restrictions are also set to go away soon. The few limitations the deal imposed on the transfer of ballistic missiles technology to Iran and the Iranian regime's ability to manufacture advanced nuclear centrifuges will be gone in the next two years, and the bulk of the deal's nuclear restrictions are set to expire in just over five years from now.

Given all this, it seems odd that the Biden administration would accelerate a return to the deal without seeking significant Iranian concessions in return. After all, regardless of whether one thinks the U.S. was right to walk away from the deal in 2018—and we believe it was—it is undeniable that the reimposition of sanctions has provided us with significant leverage. Iranian oil exports—a pillar of the Khamenei regime's corrupt rule—fell from 2.8 million barrels per day to around 300,000 barrels between 2018 and 2020. This has had a staggering effect on the Iranian economy, causing real GDP to contract by 6.8 percent in 2019-20 and the Iranian oil sector to shrink by 38.7 percent, according to the World Bank. These economic challenges have put growing pressure on the Khamenei regime, as we saw during the nationwide protests that took place in late 2019 and early 2020.

The Biden administration has Iran on the ropes. If it were willing to stand its ground and take advantage of the leverage the prior administration attained, the Biden team could very well get a much better deal for the United States and its allies in the region. Such a deal would extend the expiration dates of the JCPOA well into the future, making many of its restrictions permanent, and would go beyond the nuclear issue to address the Iranian regime's support for terrorism and attacks on Americans. It should demand the unconditional release of all Western hostages the regime holds and require that Iran hand over all the terrorist leaders, especially those of Al Qaeda, it currently houses.

Unfortunately, President Biden decided this week to unilaterally walk away from key leverage. By doing so, he suggested that the new administration is going to repeat the mistakes of the Obama team and show Iran that he wants the deal more than they do. This is not the stuff of good negotiating strategy. Historically, the Iranian regime is emboldened by perceived weakness and deterred by strength and severe consequences for its bad behavior. This is why all is not lost. If the administration were to stop negotiating against itself now, impose a cost for last week's attack on our base in Iraq and keep intact the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration that includes American sanctions and our second-party oil sanctions, we might just retain enough leverage for a better deal. Fingers crossed.

Congressman Mike Waltz represents Florida's 6th congressional district and is a combat-decorated Green Beret. Jamil N. Jaffer is the Founder and Executive Director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.