French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian recently spoke to the media about longstanding conflicts over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and said, “This has to stop because Iran and – I say this clearly – is in the process of acquiring nuclear [weapons] capacity.”
To Le Drian’s credit, the quotation reflects his frequent willingness to be more up-front than many of his colleagues about the nature and extent of Iran’s malign activities. But that quality is undermined by the larger context of his remarks and what he was referring to when he said, “This has to stop.”
One might assume that the pronoun in that sentence refers simply to Iran’s violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which include the resumption of 20 percent uranium enrichment and the start of work on production of uranium metal, which is a key component in the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran has even lately teased the possibility of kicking international inspectors out of the country, though some officials have insisted they will be allowed to stay but will have their access to suspicious sites scaled down even further from a level that was already deemed inadequate by many of the JCPOA’s critics.
Of course, Le Drian does want Iran to cease these provocative gestures and to reverse the ones it has already undertaken. But that wasn’t what he was referring to when he said “this has to stop.” Instead, he offered that phrase as a follow up to his latest condemnation of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure strategy,” which he characterized as having “only increased the risk and the threat.”
In other words, the French foreign minister recognizes the seriousness of Iran’s provocative gestures and the likelihood of more JCPOA violations in the near future, yet he places the blame for those violations on an entity other than the Iranian regime. For all his willingness to speak more plainly about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, its ballistic missile development, and its regional interventionism, Le Drian’s comments on the future of the nuclear deal make him almost indistinguishable from the many colleagues who seem happy to give into the pressure those activities are intended to exert.
On the whole, European policymakers continue to promote the idea that it is better to provide Iran with additional concessions in order to preserve the JCPOA than it is to counter Iran’s pressure tactics with more of the same. But this is a foolish position to take, because it ignore the obvious fact that by giving into that pressure when Iran has comparatively little leverage, Western powers would only be emboldening the Iranian regime to capitalize on a stronger position sometime later, and continue exerting more pressure in pursuit of more concessions.
With that in mind, the common wisdom must not be allowed to stand. But unfortunately, the transition from one US president to another has raised serious questions about who might be in a position to challenge the predominant European policy. With Trump’s maximum pressure strategy now relegated to history, it still remains to be seen what President Joe Biden with replace it with. In advance of his inauguration, he had signaled willingness to return to the existing nuclear deal, which his predecessor pulled out of in 2018. But he also said Iran would have to resume compliance first, and his foreign policy team has only cast further doubt on the notion of a speedy return to the status quo.
Still, there is ample grounds for concern that Biden might largely reverse the preexisting policies and demonstrate to Iran that he is prepared to reopen something resembling normal diplomatic relations. This is not to say that the US under Biden might allow Iran to reopen an embassy in Washington; but by simply treating the Islamic Republic as a good-faith negotiating partner, the Biden administration could help to legitimize the conciliatory policies that hold so much appeal for European allies despite Iran’s ongoing efforts to exploit them.
Making matters worse, the administration risks delivering a message of support for the status quo precisely at the time when a small handful of European entities are actually beginning to challenge it. Next week, a Belgian federal court is expected to return a verdict in the terrorism case against Assadollah Assadi, the first Iranian diplomat to ever face such charges. It is a watershed moment in the history of European relations with the Islamic Republic, and it promises to help expose the underlying danger of Iran’s overlapping diplomatic and terrorist networks.
However, that promise could easily be undermined if the US contradicts Belgium’s progress by disavowing maximum pressure and insisting upon pure diplomacy despite Iran’s well-recognized preference for threats and ultimatums. On the other hand, by continuing to publicly acknowledge the progress that maximum pressure has made, the US could give a much-needed push to those, like Le Drian – who remain on the fence between calling out Iran for its misbehavior and appeasing that behavior in hopes of securing small, temporary concessions.
Make no mistake: there has been progress from maximum pressure. It has brought the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse. The escalating violations of the nuclear deal only confirm that the regime is desperate for relief. The Assadi case, being related to a 2018 terror plot against pro-democracy activists in Iranian expatriate communities, signifies that that desperation was already setting in more than two years ago. Of course those two years have been fraught, but this is no time to return to the way things were, and to declare that all that strife was for nothing.
Under Trump, the US made Iran’s theocratic dictatorship historically vulnerable all on its own. Under Biden, the US could amplify that vulnerability greatly by convincing wary European government to sign onto a policy that recognizes genuine diplomacy as a goal rather than a means to an end in dealing with Iran.
That diplomacy will only be mutually beneficial when Iran has first been compelled to stop escalating its nuclear activities and levying other threats against Arab and Western lives and interests. Those activities are a problem, and it has to stop. US-led sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and other pressures are a response to that problem, not the other way around. This is the way it should stay. Iran’s impulse toward malign behaviors must be the focus of Western policy, and until that impulse is truly gone, there must be no illusion that Western policies caused it.