Fortunately, at nearly every level of the administration, there are officials who know the challenges posed by Iran because they have dealt with them head-on in the past.
Of the many disingenuous arguments against President Biden’s current efforts at engaging with Iran, the most laughable is that his administration will get duped by the Islamic Republic.
President Donald Trump preferred an Iran team with no relevant experience that predictably failed to make any diplomatic headway with Tehran. In fact, it did not secure face-to-face meetings with Iranian counterparts. They and their supporters continue to hold up their “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran — a flaming dumpster fire if there ever was one — as the gold standard.
Now, anti-diplomacy forces in Washington portray any outreach to Tehran as a fool’s errand pursued by liberal apologists and appeasers who fail to understand the true dangers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s response to these critiques was telling: “There’s nothing naïve about this. On the contrary, it’s a very clear-eyed way of dealing with a problem that was dealt with effectively by the JCPOA,” Blinken said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
When we left the nuclear deal, Iran began behaving worse — much worse — than when we were in it. By the end of Trump’s tenure, Iran’s uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels were approaching what would be needed to produce a nuclear weapon, and its forces were more openly belligerent in their regional attacks than they had been in years.
And yet the Biden administration continues to combat the perception that its senior policymakers — many of whom served under President Barack Obama — were and are gullible on Iran. That’s simply not true. Biden replaced Trump’s clown show with diplomatic, national security intelligence and legal experts with experience dealing directly with Iran, publicly and in secret, going back several administrations.
In 2012, current CIA Director William J. Burns and national security adviser Jake Sullivan began having secret back-channel meetings with Iranians over the nuclear issue. This was during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era, well before the presidency of Hassan Rouhani and tenure of his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Burns — who has worked for six presidents, three Republican and three Democrat — is one of the most seasoned diplomats and astute foreign policy minds in our nation’s history. In 2019, he told me it would have been “smarter to sustain the JCPOA, seek to build on it in follow-on negotiations (as you do in any arms control process) to deal with some of the inevitable imperfections, and embed this in a wider strategy to push back against threatening Iranian actions in the region.” This is exactly what the Biden team will be attempting if it reenters the deal.
Sullivan’s deputy on the National Security Council is Jon Finer, who was John F. Kerry’s chief of staff and was present for countless hours of negotiations between Kerry and Zarif at the height of the negotiations with Iran in 2015. And, compared with Kerry, one of the only American diplomats who has a comparable amount of experience directly negotiating with Iranians is Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, who was skeptical of Iran’s leadership before she ever negotiated with them and remains so today.
“We may have gained some respect during these negotiations for each other's skills and interests, but at least on my part, there was never trust,” Sherman told me last year.
Meanwhile, no current or former official knows the challenge of freeing American hostages in Iran better than Brett McGurk, NSC coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, who secretly negotiated my release, along with the release of others being held there in 2016 in exchange for commuting the sentences or pardoning several Iranians held in U.S. prisons for nonviolent crimes.
If the time comes to do something similar, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who served as Obama’s homeland security adviser, is well placed to navigate the inevitable legal implications.
With a presidential election in Iran looming in June that could dramatically alter its political landscape, top Biden officials are proceeding with extreme caution. It’s precisely because of the breadth and depth of their experience that they understand what is at stake, just how sensitive their work is and how fragile the results would be.
As efforts continue to negotiate with Iran on multiple fronts, critics will continue to tarnish the idea of engagement and the team behind it. But don’t be fooled. We already know what the alternative to this sort of diplomacy looks like — and we voted to remove it.