Iran, tormentor of US presidents, tests Joe Biden

Iran, tormentor of US presidents, tests Joe Biden

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In an address to the nation Thursday night – seeking to explain the stakes for Americans and for democracy in both conflicts – President Biden put the Iranian regime on notice.

“We’ll continue to hold them accountable,” Mr. Biden said, without providing specifics.

The president noted that Iran backs “other terrorist groups in the region.” There’s Hezbollah in south Lebanon, a more direct Iranian proxy than Hamas, threatening Israel from the north. Iran also backs the Houthis in Yemen and militants in Iraq and Syria.

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From Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan

But Mr. Biden, who prides himself on his foreign policy chops, has a tough legacy to overcome on Iran. And as he looks ahead to the 2024 election, the specter of the Democrats’ last one-term president, Jimmy Carter, hangs over him. The hostage crisis of 1979, when Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 Americans for 444 days, weakened President Carter and helped lead to his defeat in the 1980 election.

“The lesson they took clearly was that they can play the U.S., they can outwit the U.S., they can out-hostage the U.S. – and that’s continued for 44 years,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.

President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Carter’s successor, was also bitten by Iran in the biggest scandal of his presidency – the Iran-Contra Affair – when the United States sold weapons to Iran in an effort to free U.S. hostages held in Lebanon.

Today, hostages are again on the line, with some 200 being held by Hamas in Gaza; about a dozen are believed to be American. On Friday, two American hostages were released by Hamas. And just last month, the U.S. and Iran engaged in a prisoner swap in a deal that included the unfreezing of $6 billion of Iranian oil assets now being held by Qatar. The funds were restricted for humanitarian use, but after the Hamas attack, the U.S. and Qatar agreed to deny Iran access to the money.

The stakes around Iran may never have been higher. A 2015 deal between Iran and major world powers, including the U.S., to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons program is now effectively dead. President Donald Trump dropped out of the Obama-era agreement, and efforts by the Biden administration to revive it failed. The Iranian government has also become a key if transactional partner of both Russia and China as a counterbalance to the U.S. on the global stage.

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“Iran has been a revisionist power, imbued by a certain anti-American ideology in a critical part of the world,” says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It has also developed quite ingenious strategies of projecting its power on the cheap, most recently through the use of militias and proxies.”

What’s different about Iran, Dr. Takeyh says, is that “it never dispensed with its revolution even as the leadership changed and a new generation came to power. The original revolutionary values, a core aspect of which was anti-American, continued to animate the regime.”

Iran is “not a monolithic country”

Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, warns against painting Iran with too broad a brush or believing that the U.S. is heading inexorably toward war with Iran. 

“This is not a monolithic country, not even monolithic politically, though we do have very, very hard-line factions in power now,” Ms. Slavin says. “And there are a lot of people in Iran who are sick at heart that their government is supporting an organization like Hamas.”

She notes that Iran is a country of more than 80 million people, and she rejects those who talk “blithely” about the U.S. or Israel attacking Iran. 

“Do they really understand what they would be doing and who they would be hurting?” Ms. Slavin asks. “Same as our sanctions policy, which is cruel and inhuman, and hurts ordinary people far more than the regime, which of course has a monopoly on hard-currency earnings.” 

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Iran an easy target in U.S. politics

Since the 1979 hostage crisis, Iran has been an easy target in American politics. In 2002, President George W. Bush dubbed it part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. Today, the Biden administration continues to fight accusations that it’s soft on Iran, despite its strong show of support for Israel – including Mr. Biden’s trip to Tel Aviv on Wednesday, a first for an American president with Israel at war, and literal embrace of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

At a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Mr. Biden’s pick for ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, defended his record over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal amid tough questioning from Republicans. As Treasury secretary when the deal was negotiated, Mr. Lew was grilled over the provision that lifted sanctions against Iran. 

But Iran is not a “rational, economic player,” Mr. Lew said at his hearing. “You are dealing with an evil, malign government that funds its evil and malign activities first.”

Also on Wednesday, the day the remaining United Nations restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program from the 2015 nuclear deal lapsed, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile and drone programs.

But that didn’t stop Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, from claiming Thursday on social media that Mr. Biden had “given Iran another gift by permitting a set of UN sanctions on Iran to expire.” 


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