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Joe Biden’s Magical Thinking on Iran

Iranian Ballistic Missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On July 12, 2022, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman sat down with the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin to explain the Biden administration’s thinking on Iran:

“I think there is a very viable agreement and Iran just has to say, ‘yes’,” said Sherman, explaining that internal politics are likely at play over who is truly the nation’s current supreme leader. “As best as we can tell, they can’t come to a decision….” According to Sherman, it’s in Iran’s best interest to make a deal. “They would get sanctions relief. They would improve their economy and sell their oil again and the world needs their oil, so they could get a good price for it. It’s all in their interest to do this, but they’re having a very hard time getting consensus,” she said. “The European Union, the French, the Germans, the British who have negotiated this deal, along with Russia and China, all want this deal.”

From an American perspective, of course, Sherman is right. But Iran is not the United States, and Sherman commits the cardinal sin of analysis: mirror-imaging. From an Iranian perspective, Sherman is both arrogant and naïve. Her arrogance is the belief that she knows better than her Iranian counterparts do what is best for Iran. Her naiveté is rooted in the fact that her blind spot toward the Islamic Republic’s ideology helps Tehran advance the nuclear program that diplomacy means to prevent.

To construct a strategy toward the Islamic Republic without understanding how ideology shapes its behavior is a recipe for disaster. For Sherman to blame “internal politics” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran. The supreme leader acts as God’s deputy on earth. He directs politics, not the other way around. While there are elections in the Islamic Republic, elected positions have no influence on security policy, such as Iran’s nuclear program.

True, a decade ago, the supreme leader authorized limited talks over Iran’s nuclear program; Tehran’s motivation was not a desire for peace, but rather financial relief. In the year preceding the start of negotiations, Iran’s gross domestic product fell 5.4 percent. Because the Obama administration offered Tehran upwards of one billion dollars in relief per month to negotiate and the regime became less financially desperate, Khamenei strengthened Iran’s redlines. Ultimately, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did not do what Obama advertised. It reversed decades of counter-proliferation precedent, fell short of demanding Additional Protocol ratification, and did not address delivery systems.

Because Biden lifted, waived, and refused to enforce sanctions, Iran could replenish its hard currency reserves decimated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” campaign. This has reduced Khamenei’s incentive to bargain sincerely. Too often, partisans blame President Trump’s JCPOA exit for Iran’s nuclear rebound. This is wrong on three counts: First, as a Foundation for Defense of Democracies timeline shows, Iran’s nuclear acceleration occurred only after Biden’s inauguration, and Tehran lost the fear of retaliation. Second, the JCPOA never relieved Iran of its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Safeguards Agreement. Third, Iranians have agency. They have a proactive strategy. At best, they used Trump’s inartfulness as an excuse, but never a motivation.

Ideology is at the heart of the Iranian regime. Both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps define “export of revolution” as the regime’s raison d’être. Indoctrination of revolutionary fervor is a regular theme of Khamenei’s sermons. That Khamenei and any among Iran’s leadership care more about the economy than consolidating regime power and the propagation of its ideology is a flawed assumption. Sherman may not recognize this, but Iranians do. This is the reason why ordinary Iranians took to the streets before Trump withdrew from the JCPOA was because the money which flowed into Iranian coffers benefited only the Revolutionary Guards and not the ordinary public.

Sherman should know better. She cut her teeth on North Korea diplomacy. There, too, the regime cares more about ideology and power consolidation than the well-being of its population. Diverting money to such regimes never brings peace.

Biden and Sherman may mean well. While American partisans demonize opponents, American policymakers often act in what they believe is in the best interest of the United States and its security. In this case, however, Sherman inadvertently shows why Biden’s Iran strategy has failed so spectacularly: It is built on a shaky foundation of magical thinking, one which projects the White House’s own sincerity onto America’s chief Middle Eastern adversary and discounts almost entirely the ideology which shapes Iranian thinking and motivates its actions.

Expert Biography – Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).



  1. Ghost Tomahawk

    July 19, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    The best thing the US can do is leave this part of the world alone to its own devices. If Iran can stumble into developing a nuke or procure one so what. What we need to do is ensure that we arent financing it. Don’t buy their oil don’t send them aid. History is replete with dead civilizations and Iran is one that needs to disappear. Cut them off and watch them shrivel. Same goes for China.

    • cobo

      July 19, 2022 at 2:08 pm

      When you say, “cut them off,” we find ourselves in complete agreement. We may only disagree on the cutting instrument.

  2. TG

    July 19, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    We invade and trash nations without nuclear weapons – Libya and Iraq come to mind – and laugh as their leaders and their families are brutally tortured to death. We treat even odious countries like North Korea with respect and do not invade, because they have nukes.

    Putin would never have invaded Ukraine if they had had nukes. And we will (hopefully?) never attack Russia directly, because they do have nukes. And vice versa.

    And we are surprised that the Iranians want Nukes? If I was an Iranian leader I’d sure want nukes. I’m kind of surprised that they don’t have them already.

  3. pagar

    July 19, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    Iran must scramble to acquire hi tech from Russia asap as both nations are now in the same boat – under heavy crippling sanctions and threatened with outright death by Genghis.

    Remember the message about the meek inheriting the earth. But the meek must seek to acquire the hi tech to thwart genghis and his extremely murderous horde.

  4. Scottfs

    July 19, 2022 at 8:49 pm

    Excellent points. For Obama to send $1.7 BILLION in cash to Iran really is treasonous. Scratch Obama and you’ll find a Muslim underneath.

    He admitted as much to Mike Wallace, if you’ll remember.

    The only hope now is for the Iranian people to rise up (with the approval of not support, of the American go ernment), and overthrow the clerics. That is what they…and we…want.

    Rewarding the regime is exactly the wrong thing to do.

    • Arash P

      July 20, 2022 at 1:11 pm

      Yes, hopefully America will help with the regime change, you know like how they did it in 1953!

      Every official in Iran is elected by the people, either directly or indirectly, including the supreme leader!
      Now compare that with Saudi regime or pre-revolution regime of Shah which had the approval of United States!

      Americans don’t care about Iranian people. They care about not having another member of nuclear club and specially not having another country armed with nukes in the mid-east to challenge Israel’s nuclear supremacy.

      The wishful thinking of people like you speaks volume of your arrogance that you think if there be a “regime change” in Iran, the new Iranian government will just disarm itself for your happiness!

      6 out of 9 nuclear states are unquestionably democracies (7 out of 9 if you count Russia). You don’t hear from any of them calling for their own de-nuclearization! Why would a more democratic Iran be any different? Because we are stupid?!

  5. Ben Leucking

    July 19, 2022 at 10:14 pm

    There seems to be a lot of magical thinking in the Biden administration.

  6. Arash P

    July 20, 2022 at 1:23 am

    Another Iranophobic piece trying to portray us Iranians as illogical zombies who can’t be reasoned with and are only motivated by suicidal desires!

    What sane person would throw away hard earned nuclear progress for a “deal” that can be trashed at any time, by a stroke of a pen of a single person?!

    Nuclear weapons for Israel, nuclear “deal” for Iran!

    No, thank you very much!

    History of states such as Iraq and Libya has taught Iran that it’s absolute insanity to let go of one’s nuclear capabilities.

    If you want to know where Iran’s nuclear program is heading, ask yourself a couple of simple questions.

    Would Trump dare to kill top general, war hero, second only to the leader guy, of a nuclear armed state?!!

    Or when was the last time US told a nuclear armed state that “all options are on the table”?!!

    See? We aren’t insane at all. We are taking the logical and correct course of action!

  7. Dr Scooter Van Neuter

    July 20, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    The degree of woke idiocy emanating from this feckless, breathtakingly inept administration is unmatched. Nothing they do surprises at this point. Damn them to Hell –

  8. Mark Thomason

    July 21, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    Just the opposite, it projects the total lack of sincerity of the US onto Iran.

    Iran honored the Deal, and the US did not.

    The problem now is that Iran cannot accept the offer, because the offer cannot be trusted. Iran would not get what is promised, not now any more than it got it before. Less.

    Sherman knows that. She just can’t say it publicly.

  9. Leon Lou

    July 23, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    Michael Rubin is right and Michael Rubin is always right. Only Michael Rubin can ever understand the real raison d’etre of Khamenei. All hail Michael Rubin. Of course Michael Rubin is right about Wendy Sherman, she does live under the illusion that Iran will fall once again to the West duplicity. There is no economic benefit to JCPOA because there was never any benefit to it. Notice, in the entire quote, Wendy Sherman never mention a single concession the West is giving Iran. It is Iranian oil, Iranian money, Iranian Nuclear program. What is it Iran is trading to the West its nuclear program for? May be the West will give Iran medical isotopes. May be the west will give Iran proliferation-resistant nuclear power plant. May be the west will guarantee the security of Iran against the depredation of the West. None of that is/was on the table. Iran will sell Iranian oil to Europe and get market price for it, in exchange Iran will destroy its nuclear industry because the West don’t like it. What is the concession there? But according to Michael Rubin this was a great deal for Iran. And the fact that Khamenei is not rushing to sign up is proof of an inherent secret ideology that only Michael Rubin can decipher. With great analysis like this, no wonder we are where we are now.

    Notice as a partisan, Michael Rubin sneaked in the falsehood that OBAMA gave Iran 1 gazillion dollars a month (my apology billion) to agree to JCPOA. Where did Obama get those billions to give Iran? Perhaps from his own saving account as a community organizer in Chicago. You see, Michael Rubin can make any false statement and he knows there is no way to verify any of it. So there goes the same pro-Israel and pro-war with Iran con job continuing.

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