When President Donald Trump one year ago Sunday ordered a U.S. drone strike on Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, then the commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, he reminded the regime in Tehran of a principle sounded in the days and years after 9/11 by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama: Whether America brings its enemies to justice or brings justice to its enemies, justice will be done.
Bipartisanship was broken during the debate over the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, but it can and must be restored now.
Soleimani was responsible for killing more than 600 American military personnel and many more innocent civilians across the Middle East. Thousands more were wounded on his watch. On his orders, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad faced a barrage of rocket attacks. Beyond Iraq, Soleimani helped Bashar al-Assad retain power in Syria and Hezbollah amass advanced weaponry much more accurate and deadly than it ever held before. And while he served, the Revolutionary Guards detained and murdered countless Iranian protesters.
U.S. military personnel, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians celebrated his death. But in Washington, the partisan knives were out. Some Democrats admonished the president for his “provocative and disproportionate actions.” It was as stark a reminder as ever that bipartisanship on Iran policy remains dangerously weak, and it perfectly encapsulates the challenges and opportunities that President-elect Joe Biden will inherit when he takes office on Jan. 20.
A strong, smart policy against Iranian violence at home and abroad, and against its nuclear program, was long embraced by both parties in Washington. That bipartisanship was broken during the debate over the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, but it can and must be restored now. We urge Biden not to re-enter the original agreement but instead work with both parties in Washington and our allies in Europe and the Middle East to develop a new Iran policy — one that reflects the regional realities of 2021, not 2015.
Chief among those realities is that Iran remains a dangerous actor and the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. The assassination of al-Qaeda’s second-highest leader on the streets of Tehran in August has underscored that fact. Iran still fuels proxy wars in the Middle East, fights to protect dictators and props up other international outlaws with illicit trade. It still targets U.S. troops for death and is a brutal abuser of human rights. It still launders money, still takes hostages and plots assassinations, and is still committing nuclear extortion.
However, rather than being ascendant and flush with cash, Iran has been hurt by decades of U.S. economic sanctions adopted by bipartisan majorities and maximized by the Trump administration during the past four years. The hopes that underpinned the 2015 nuclear agreement, in which the United States and other world powers agreed to relax sanctions on Iran in return for some curbs on its nuclear program, were not realized.
Rather than moderating the regime, Iran used the windfall it received to further terrorize the Middle East — most often, but not exclusively under the nuclear agreement, through Soleimani’s Revolutionary Guards and proxy forces. Only months after the ink was dry, U.K. authorities arrested operatives from Hezbollah for stockpiling 3 metric tons of ammonium nitrate outside London. Shortly after the nuclear deal came into being, Iran also tested ballistic missiles — a clear and present danger to Iran’s neighbors.
The Trump administration’s campaign of maximum economic pressure dispelled the argument that unilateral sanctions on Iran couldn’t work to damage the Iranian economy, a claim that supporters of the deal made to dissuade Washington from leaving the multinational framework to act on its own. Despite the protests of some foreign ministries, individual global companies have adhered to the sanctions because of the primacy of the American economy.
The U.S. has the economic clout to force businesses to make a choice between America and Iran — an easy decision for most. According to the U.S. State Department, the Iranian gross domestic product has shrunk by around 6 percent for three years. The ayatollah and his yet-to-be named successor now face the choice of a functioning economy or continuing on an outlaw path of nuclear enrichment, terror, proxy wars and human rights abuses, while suffering economic ruin. It is Iran that needs a new agreement more than the United States.
There are some who have already called on Biden to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and lift sanctions. They believe doing so would help empower so-called moderates in Iran in its presidential election next June. But the sanctions are working and there’s no correlation between them and the absence of a moderate in power. America cannot help lift a moderate to the Iranian presidency because there are no real moderates within the ruling regime. When real moderates are found, they are imprisoned or executed.
It’s now time to restore bipartisanship to one of the most serious threats to America’s national security by both parties returning to the consensus that had prevailed before the nuclear deal of 2015. Recent developments in Congress have been encouraging.
In January, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed Resolution 752, which condemned “the Iranian regime’s serious human rights abuses and destabilizing activities abroad.” In May, nearly the entirety of the House called on the United States to work to renew the U.N. arms embargo on Iran, which was irresponsibly allowed to expire as part of the nuclear deal of 2015.
Consistent with Biden’s history and policy priorities, there should be no sanctions relief for the mere promise of negotiations; U.S. allies and partners from the region should be involved in any negotiations; and the totality of the Iranian threat, especially human rights, should be considered alongside the nuclear threat.
America cannot help lift a moderate to the Iranian presidency because there are no real moderates within the ruling regime.
We are also encouraged by Biden’s assurances that his administration will continue sanctions on Iranian state institutions and high-level officials for human rights abuses, support for terrorism and developing ballistic missiles, and we are optimistic that he will leverage his long foreign policy experience to strengthen the relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors by building on the Abraham Accords. But we believe that will only be possible if he pursues an Iran policy that is accepted and supported by our friends in the Middle East.
Biden has pledged to govern as the president of all Americans in domestic and foreign policy. We applaud that commitment and urge him to apply that approach to the Iranian threat. If he does, he will find partners on both sides of the political aisle in Washington.
Joseph I. Lieberman
Joseph I. Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut and the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States, is chairman of the bipartisan advocacy organization United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).