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September 19 2023

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The Latest Biden Iran Deal Is as Bad as You’d Expect

Originally published in National Review.

In June, we wrote here that the administration of President Joe Biden was considering a freeze-for-bribe (“freeze-for-freeze” according to the administration officials) agreement with Iran. Last week, the administration announced a hostage deal with Iran that, beneath the surface, implements this freeze-for-bribe.

At first glance, the agreement is as follows: The U.S. has agreed to release up to $15.5 billion to the Islamic Republic of Iran and has released five Islamic Republic agents held in U.S. prisons. In exchange, Tehran has released five U.S. citizens. $2.7 billion of that money had been released prior to the agreement as a gesture of goodwill. An additional $6 billion was released on Monday, and the rest will reportedly come from the International Monetary Fund.

The agreement leaves behind two U.S. nationals — albeit not citizens — to languish in the Islamic Republic’s captivity. Shahab Dalili was taken hostage upon visiting Iran for a family funeral. Jamshid Sharmahd, a German–Iranian permanent resident of California, is a unique case. Unlike most Americans taken hostage by the regime, he should not be faulted for visiting Iran but lauded for his courage of being a prominent dissident. He was kidnapped while visiting Dubai and smuggled into Iran, and he faces the death penalty for his political activities. Yet the three governments with stakes in his case — the United States, Germany, and the U.A.E. — have shown little interest in his release.

The agreement requires the Islamic Republic to use the funds only for humanitarian purposes, and it entrusts Qatar to be an honest guardian of this clause. But Qatar, the Islamic Republic’s fellow fundamentalist, Jew-hating state sponsor of terrorism, is an untrustworthy partner. Moreover, money is fungible. In fact, Ebrahim Raisi, the president of the Islamic Republic, told CNN’s Lester Holt on Tuesday that his regime will use the money as it wishes to and without constraints.

In comparison, during the administration of President Donald Trump, the Islamic Republic agreed to release one U.S. citizen in exchange for one of its agents held in a U.S. prison. An honest journalist would ask the administration about the disparity between the two agreements, and why the current administration made much greater concessions. The only two explanations are that either the current administration is far worse at diplomatic negotiations or that there are secret, side agreements. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Though not disclosed by the Biden administration, the U.S. government has loosened the enforcement of sanctions. In August, Iran’s oil exports reached pre-sanction levels, even though sanctions technically remain in place. On the other hand, Iran has slowed down the advances in its nuclear program. Even though it is still enriching uranium at 60 percent — which is too close to weapon-grade to be comfortable with — it is not adding to its stockpile as fast as it was earlier this year, and it has agreed to give limited monitoring access to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran has scaled back its attacks on U.S. forces and allies, with the notable exception of Israel, as well. The Jewish Institute for National Security America’s Iran Projective Tracker keeps a record of regional aggressions by Iran and its affiliated proxies, and it shows a drastic decrease in recent months.

All of the details of the freeze-for-bribe agreement reported in April appear in place, but there is no written document. That’s not an accident, but rather an attempt to avoid legally required congressional oversight.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) requires a congressional vote on the implementation of any nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. But the law is intentionally designed to allow for the implementation of any deal in the absence of overwhelming congressional opposition. Even if Congress votes to disapprove, the administration will be able to keep its agreement. The only way to prevent the deal’s implementation is by overriding a presidential veto — something its opponents won’t have the support to do. But the administration is still eager to avoid a vote, and a written agreement would trigger one under the law.

The process became a headache for the administration of President Barack Obama. The people who implemented the original nuclear agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, or JCPOA) are again in charge of the current negotiations, and they remember the challenges of the last time. The bipartisan rebuke of the deal by leading congressional Republicans and Democrats alike, including then–Senate minority whip Chuck Schumer and the leading Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin, helped expose the agreement as deeply flawed to most Americans. Having bipartisan congressional opposition to the deal on the record was a major factor in the U.S.’s eventual withdrawal from it three years later. Additionally, amid the embarrassment of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it added to the narrative of an administration that was weak on foreign policy.

The Biden administration is doing its best to avoid the same headaches ahead of the president’s reelection campaign. But the prisoner-swap deal has already sparked similar bipartisan opposition, which adds to the concern that nothing good for the administration will come out of submitting the agreement to Congress for review. Americans’ hostility toward the regime in Iran has also increased since 2015, especially over the past year following the heroic revolutionary movement of the Iranian people and Tehran’s supply of drones to Russia.

A secret agreement also benefits the Islamic Republic. Regime leaders had repeatedly stated that they would not sign any agreement that didn’t meet several conditions, including delisting the Islamic Revolution’s Guardian Corps as a terrorist organization, but the Biden administration has come to realize that it cannot politically afford to grant those concessions. An unofficial agreement will give the butchers of Tehran a way out, too.

The administration is now more modest in its aims, settling for an unofficial nuclear agreement. This one is even more dependent on the good faith of the Islamist regime than the JCPOA, and it includes less surveillance and fewer enforcement mechanisms. Almost certainly, the administration understands that this is not a permanent fix but a temporary patch to get it through November 2024 without turbulence.

Indeed, after the Islamic Republic received confirmation that the funds had been transferred to Qatar, it informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would reduce the agency’s ability to monitor its nuclear facilities, raising the question of whether it will abide by the rest of the unwritten agreement.

Another major question mark over this secret deal was the U.N. missile embargo against the Islamic Republic, which is due to expire this October. It is legally disputed whether the United States can trigger the embargo’s extension, which the administration has refused to do, but any one of the European parties to the JCPOA — the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany — could unilaterally extend it. The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that the Europeans had decided not to trigger snapback sanctions and extend the U.N. embargo. This is an urgent problem, because missing the deadline to extend the embargo will enable Tehran to export missiles, in addition to the drones it has already been sending, to Russia for use against Ukraine. Especially considering Tehran’s decision to reduce the IEAE’s access to Iran’s nuclear sites, ensuring the embargo’s extension is critical to Ukraine’s success and curbing the nuclear program.

This maneuver by the administration is equally genius and cynical. It achieves the president’s short-term aims with regard to Tehran’s nuclear program, but it will not cause public outcry because it is sweetened by the release of American prisoners. It will go into effect, and there likely there won’t be a nuclear test in Iran or any major escalation in the regime’s nuclear program before November 2024 — only slow progress as the regime gets richer and continues to oppress the Iranian people. Through lies, deception, and secrecy, the administration will get away with this. Congressional intervention is the last resort, but the legislative branch is not prepared to stop the administration from this executive overreach, and time is running out to do so. The peoples of Iran, Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and, most important, the United States will pay the price.

Shay Khatiri, an immigrant from Iran currently seeking political asylum in the United States, is a fellow at the Yorktown Institute. Andrew Ghalili is a senior policy analyst at the National Union for Democracy in Iran.