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Opinion Trump allowed Iran to go nuclear, but Biden will get the blame

New-generation Iranian centrifuges in Tehran last year. (Iranian Presidency Office/Via Reuters)
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As he travels around the Middle East this week, President Biden is struggling with the fallout of what may turn out to be the single worst diplomatic blunder in U.S. history: President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Even though Iran was complying with the agreement, Trump called it “defective at its core” and warned that “if we do nothing … in just a short period of time, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror will be on the cusp of acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

When Trump spoke those words, Iran’s “breakout time” — the period it would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — was about a year. In May, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran’s breakout time was essentially at zero. Under the nuclear deal, Iran could not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent. Now, it is enriching up to 60 percent (far closer to weapons grade) and its stockpile of enriched uranium is 18 times greater than what was allowed under the nuclear deal. Iran already has enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb within a few weeks. Within six months it could produce five bombs.

Needless to say, Iran also hasn’t complied with the “12 very basic requirements” that Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, imperiously laid out a couple weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Pompeo demanded, inter alia, that Iran stop developing “nuclear-capable missile systems,” “end support to Middle East terrorist groups,” “withdraw all forces under Iranian command” from Syria, and “end its threatening behavior against its neighbors.” The Trump administration tried to signal its seriousness by killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s feared Quds Force, in January 2020.

Yet Iran remains in the terrorism business (Turkey just uncovered an Iranian plot targeting Israeli tourists), and it hasn’t reduced its support for proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen or the Assad regime in Syria. Iran had largely stopped attacking U.S. troops in the region when the nuclear deal was in effect, but its militias have now ramped up strikes against bases in Syria and Iraq where U.S. personnel are based.

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This isn’t all Trump’s fault. While Biden was dealt a very poor hand, he also hasn’t played that hand particularly well. The administration did not rush to renew the Iran nuclear deal when it took office, thus losing a valuable window of opportunity before the election in August 2021 of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president.

More recently, in April, there were numerous media reports that a nuclear deal had finally been reached and that only one major obstacle remained: Iran’s demand that Biden rescind Trump’s 2019 listing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. Biden should have done so, because the designation was largely symbolic and would not have affected individual sanctions on the corps’s commanders. But the Senate voted 62 to 33 for a nonbinding resolution against delisting the guard, and Biden was too afraid of being labeled soft on Iran by Republicans to complete the deal.

But while Biden could have handled Iran better, there is little doubt that we have reached this perilous pass in large part because of Trump’s catastrophic blunder. The shadow of Trump, indeed, looms over efforts to revive the nuclear deal. Iran is not inclined to make any sacrifices today when it knows any deal could be — and probably would be — torn up in 2025 by a future Republican president, perhaps even by Trump himself.

So now that Trump and his “America First” crew have brought us to the brink of disaster, what do they propose to do? Republicans, naturally, have nothing constructive to offer. Their demands (endorsed by 49 of 50 GOP senators) are to not make any concessions to Iran and keep tough sanctions in place. In other words, keep doing what isn’t working.

Biden has to maintain the pretense that the nuclear deal — which is effectively dead — could still be revived because if he were to admit that negotiations had failed, he would have to lay out an alternative strategy to stop Iran from going nuclear — and that strategy simply doesn’t exist. The only other option would be to launch U.S. or Israeli military strikes, but they would be unlikely to eradicate Iranian nuclear facilities that are heavily fortified and hidden. The last thing the world needs right now is another war; the West needs to focus on defeating Russia, not Iran.

Here’s the really cruel irony of the situation: If Iran goes nuclear, Trump will be more responsible than any other American, but Biden will get the blame. Indeed, if Iran tests a nuclear weapon before the 2024 U.S. election, that would further discredit Biden and could hasten Trump’s return to the Oval Office. With his genius for failing upward, Trump has created a no-win situation for the country that could redound to his political benefit.