President Joe Biden has the chance to avert a nuclear crisis that could push the United States to the brink of war and threaten the coalition he's built to counter Russia. But he isn't seizing it for one overriding reason: He fears the political blowback.
Since taking office, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama signed and President Donald Trump junked. That's vital, since Tehran, freed from the deal's constraints, has been racing toward the ability to build a nuclear bomb. Now, according to numerous press reports, the U.S. and Iran have largely agreed on how to revive the agreement.
But there's one major obstacle left: The Trump administration's designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — a branch of the Iranian military charged with defending Iran's theocratic political system — as a foreign terrorist organization. Tehran wants the designation lifted. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late April that the U.S. wouldn't do that, at least not without unspecified conditions that Tehran appears disinclined to meet. He also warned the senators that failing to reach a deal that arrests Iran's nuclear progress would have grave consequences. The Islamic republic, he estimated, is only a "matter of weeks" from being able to construct a nuclear weapon.
Given all of that, something else Blinken said is even more shocking. He said the terrorist designation doesn't matter. "As a practical matter," he explained, "the designation does not really gain you much because there are myriad other sanctions on the IRGC." By its own admission, the Biden administration is risking the Iran nuclear deal for nothing.
Opponents claim that concessions to Iran, even on issues that are largely symbolic, will embolden it to become more aggressive. But the Biden administration's primary concern is politics. Appearing soft on a force that targets U.S. troops — even if that appearance bears little resemblance to reality — isn't electorally appealing, especially headed into a midterm campaign in which Democrats' prospects already look grim. Congress isn't making this any easier: On May 4, 62 senators — including 16 Democrats — passed a nonbinding motion opposing removing the Revolutionary Guards from the foreign terrorist organization list. "Politically," a Biden official recently told the Washington Post, "we know that it's an extremely difficult step to take."
This timidity has become a pattern for the Biden administration. On foreign policy, it often retreats from the policies it believes are best in the face of political opposition.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged in the Democratic platform to "move swiftly to reverse" the Trump administration sanctions that have helped immiserate ordinary Cubans while doing nothing to improve their human rights. Instead the president has toughened sanctions, a reversal that, as the New York Times reported last year, "reflects the ascendant influence of Senator Robert Menendez, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee wields enormous power over administration nominees and other administration priorities."
Biden also promised during the campaign to "reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem," which signaled to Palestinians in the city — most of whom live as noncitizens under Israeli control — that the U.S. took an interest in their plight. But Republicans in Congress, echoing the Israeli government, have denounced plans for reopening the consulate. It remains shut.
The Democrats also said in their platform that they would end the Trump administration's "self-defeating, unilateral tariff wars" with China. But with politicians in both parties scrambling to prove how tough they are on Beijing, that step would encounter fierce resistance, too. Trump's tariffs largely remain.
No president can carry out everything in his party's platform, of course. But Biden won't even repeal policies imposed by the president he defeated and reinstate those of the president he served. And in the case of Iran, that unwillingness is both absurd and dangerous.
It's absurd because there was no good reason to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization in the first place. Until Trump did so in 2019, the designation had never been applied to a foreign military. The corps was already under multiple sanctions. And supporters of Trump's move frankly acknowledged that the designation was intended to make it politically painful for any future president to revive the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration killed.
Even some commentators who oppose lifting the designation now — because they think doing so would upset American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia — admit that it does nothing to restrain the Revolutionary Guards. As Matthew Levitt of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy admitted in March, the designation "is of little practical utility in helping the U.S. government deal with the IRGC."
The most tangible consequence of designating the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization is that former members are barred from entering the United States. But it's doubtful many Iranian generals — already facing a raft of other sanctions — are planning American vacations. The people who are likely to be hurt by this are the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who over the decades were conscripted into the Revolutionary Guards, many of whom had little sympathy for the regime they were forced to serve. In March the Pacific Symphony invited a renowned Iranian singer, Alireza Ghorbani, who now lives in Canada, to perform at a concert in Southern California. But he was denied entry to the U.S. because he was conscripted into the Revolutionary Guards decades ago.
If that's not bad enough, failing to delist the Revolutionary Guards could, in the worst case, lead to war. Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, predicts that if the nuclear deal is not revived and Iran continues to enrich uranium at its current pace, by this fall it will be mere days away from the capacity to build a nuclear bomb. The closer Tehran gets, the more pressure Biden will face to launch a military strike or at least to acquiesce if Israel does. "By end of the year," Vaez told me, "it will be either Biden's bomb or Biden's war."
A crisis with Iran would undermine the global coalition that Biden has helped assemble to defend Ukraine. And it would constitute not only a foreign policy disaster. It would constitute a political disaster, too. If Biden thinks the midterm campaign looks bleak now, imagine the effect on Democratic fortunes if Iran becomes a de facto nuclear power or if that prospect plunges the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. By avoiding a political headache now, Biden is courting an even greater one down the road.
On Iran, the Biden administration wants to play it safe. It can't. It's better off simply doing what's right.
Peter Beinart is a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also an editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter. This article originally appeared in the New York Times.