(Bloomberg Opinion) — The most charitable explanation for Joe Biden’s call for the easing of sanctions on Iran is that it is a combination of virtue-signaling and opportunism, the standard political admixture prescribed by spin-doctors for any campaign season.
After all, the former vice president needs to embrace some of the positions of Bernie Sanders in order to finish off his sole surviving rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. He also needs to appease the extreme left of the party, where radicals such as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argue that the Islamic Republic should get sanctions relief in order to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.
But such charity is misplaced. When it comes to the Middle East, Biden has a long history of endorsing woolly and reckless ideas, and not only when he’s run for office.
This is a man, remember, who enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq. When that went badly, his solution was that the country be “soft-partitioned” along ethnic and sectarian lines — a plan that would have made the 1947 division of India and Pakistan seem a minor family squabble in comparison.
Biden then offered to wager his vice presidency that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country by extending the status of forces agreement. When that didn’t happen, he backed President Barack Obama’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq.
Biden’s view of Iran has been just as fuzzy. He supported Obama’s decision to sign the ill-conceived 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which placed no restraints on the theocratic regime’s campaign to destabilize the Middle East. This could be chalked down to loyalty: Vice presidents are often obliged to defend poor presidential decisions.
But Biden has doubled down on Obama’s Iran policy, saying he would, as president, return the U.S. to the deal — without first insisting that the regime in Tehran halt its murderous activities in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza. He has never acknowledged that the agreement freed Iran to expand those activities, contributing to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Nor does he recognize that, by giving the regime access to billions of dollars in unfrozen assets, the nuclear deal strengthened the theocrats.
Biden’s call for sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic is, likewise, unburdened by concern for the millions of people who daily suffer the consequences of Iran’s destructive policy. While stating that the regime “continues to act provocatively in the region” — a most generous characterization of its participation in, say, the Syrian genocide — he makes no demand on Tehran to cease and desist, to demonstrate the same humane consideration for other peoples that it is asking for its own.
The former vice president also ignores the Iranian regime’s explicit rejection of U.S. assistance, not to mention the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s claim that the coronavirus is a “biological weapon,” apparently devised by the Great Satan.
Nor has Biden noticed that the regime is unclear about the impact of the sanctions on its ability to deal with the epidemic. President Hassan Rouhani has boasted that “the sanctions have failed to hamper our efforts to fight against the coronavirus outbreak.” Iran’s decision to step up attacks on American targets even while asking for $5 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund points to Tehran’s real priorities.
Biden’s facile argument for sanctions relief is easily dismissed, and the White House will no doubt disregard it. But it also represents a missed opportunity for the Democratic frontrunner. Rather than follow the likes of Sanders, Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, he could have signaled to Tehran that his sympathy for the plight of Iranian people will not blind him to the regime’s many sins. This would have been a good moment to show Tehran that it would face a new kind of adversary in a President Biden — neither the soft touch of an Obama, nor the egregious cruelty of Trump.
But that would require Biden to break the habit of a lifetime. As Robert Gates, Obama’s defense secretary said of the former vice president: “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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