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Biden’s Response to the Iran Threat Could Be Disastrous

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While foreign policy is likely to take a back seat to domestic concerns such as the coronavirus pandemic during the early stages of a future Biden administration, one issue should not: the Iran threat.

During the campaign, President-elect Joe Biden promised to handle Iran “the smart way” and said he would give Tehran “a credible path back to diplomacy.” He also said the U.S. could rejoin the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” if Iran commits to full compliance.

But top U.S. allies in the Middle East such as Israel and the Gulf states are especially concerned that Biden would return to the same failed strategy on Iran that former President Barack Obama pursued as part of the nuclear deal. Chief among these concerns is that the Islamic Republic could see significant sanctions relief in return for compliance with the nuclear accord. This would give a financially struggling Iran the funds it would need to continue its regional aggression, develop its ballistic missile program, and prepare to ramp up its nuclear program once restrictions from the 2015 deal come to an end.

Yet it is clear that Iran has ended any pretense of adhering to the nuclear deal. According to the latest report by UN inspectors, Iran has 2,440 kilograms of enriched uranium stockpiles, which far exceeds the 300 kilograms allowed under the deal. Experts say that is enough material to produce at least two nuclear weapons. The report said Iran is also enriching uranium to as much as 4.5 percent purity, higher than the limits in the deal. Additionally, Iran has completed the transfer of a cascade of advanced centrifuges from a plant above ground to an underground site, which can protect the plant from aerial attacks.

The nuclear program is just one component of Iran’s goal of regional hegemony, alongside the funding of terror groups throughout the Middle East and activities that foment chaos in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Another example of Tehran’s meddling in regional affairs is the destabilizing role it played in the recently concluded six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus nations which signed a Russian-brokered peace agreement on November 10.

Iran shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran and Azerbaijan are Shi’a Muslim-majority countries, Tehran’s behavior exhibited that it consistently sided with Armenia in the recent conflict, and that the mullahs view Azerbaijan more as a threat than an ally.

Reports during the conflict suggested that Iran allowed its airspace and territory to facilitate the transport of military equipment and weaponry to Armenia through its Norduz border point. Iranian Azerbaijanis took to the streets in Iran’s northern provinces to rally against the Islamic Republic’s support for Armenia and the Armenian occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.

While Iran’s government and religious leaders attempted to play down their support for Armenia, issuing platitudes and statements in support of negotiations and working towards a ceasefire, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) clearly identified Azerbaijan as the instigator of the conflict and as a threat to the Islamic regime in Tehran.

An analysis by Mashregh News, which is closely tied to the IRGC, asserted that Azerbaijan has claims on Iranian Azerbaijani provinces and stated that if Nagorno-Karabakh “is captured by [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev’s forces and the [takfiri] terrorists sent by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, there will be a serious threat to Iran in terms of national security and territorial integrity.”

According to experts, Iran’s pro-Armenian approach is likely based on its foreign policy doctrine of Umm al-qura, or “mother of all Muslim cities.” This doctrine, developed in 1990, claims that if the Iranian regime falls, no one will be left to defend Islam and Shi’a Muslims. Therefore, the doctrine holds that Tehran needs to prioritize its own security and strength no matter the cost. As such, it views the Islamic regime’s survival as more important than the lives of some Muslims, or in this case, Azerbaijani Shi’a Muslims.

While President-elect Biden may be tempted to lift harsh sanctions and renew diplomacy with Iran, it is clear that the Islamic Republic has other intentions — namely regional hegemony through not only the pursuit of nuclear weapons but also through destabilizing other regional conflicts. It would be wise for Biden to take a close look at Iran’s threatening role before reflexively returning the U.S. to the Obama-era policy of appeasing Tehran.

Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter at @pauliespoint.