The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has significantly encumbered the Biden administration's drive to reach a renewed Iran nuclear deal. Seeing an opportunity to build leverage against the United States and Europe as they impose sanctions on Russia, Vladimir Putin threw a grenade into the Iran talks taking place in Vienna. The Russian strongman demanded a "white channel" with Tehran to circumvent international sanctions. This was apparently a bridge too far for U.S. diplomats, who had until that point seemed willing to cave on any and every Iranian demand to seal a deal.
The negotiators left Vienna to reassess their options, but that didn't stop Russia and Iran from sending their counterparts clear messages. Since then, Russia has unleashed unspeakable violence on Ukraine, while the Iranian regime fired missiles near the American Consulate in northern Iraq. If the latest reports are true, the U.S. has just agreed to allow Russia to carry out nuclear work mandated under the 2015 nuclear deal: uranium swaps with Iran, work on the Fordow nuclear facility, and the provision of nuclear fuel to Iranian reactors.
The Biden White House is apparently indifferent to the terrible optics. While war rages on the edge of Europe and the U.S.-led world order hangs in the balance, a deal is now in the works that is set to empower Putin's Russia and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Islamic Republic.
If it wasn't clear before, it should be now: This is no time for a deal with either of those authoritarian regimes.
Already under fire at home for its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, the Biden administration is undeniably struggling to find its equilibrium after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It is uncertain about imposing the most effective sanctions, such as cutting off all Russian banks from global commerce and tying up Russian energy revenues. And it is unwilling to deploy force. The White House thus appears content to rally the international community to express its collective outrage. But that will do little to stop Putin's destruction of Ukraine, let alone mitigate Americans' sticker shock at gas stations and supermarkets as oil and food prices soar. It also will not help preserve the American-led world order, which is increasingly under assault by Russia, Iran, and China.
There may have been a moment when the Biden White House believed a deal with Tehran might demonstrate American leadership amid the crisis in Ukraine. But that moment has passed, as Putin seems to have settled into the driver's seat there as well. The Russian negotiator in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, has emerged as the dominant advocate for Iran's case. Ulyanov recently boasted, "Iran got much more than it could expect in [the] Vienna talks." This is now undeniably the truth. But Russia's perks are not inconsiderable, either.
The American concession that enables Russia to conduct nuclear work with the Islamic Republic, even as Putin threatens to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, is foreign policy malpractice. It's hard to argue otherwise. Still, some might say that at least the White House held firm and denied the Russian request for a sanctions "white channel" to trade with Iran. Yes, that was technically taken off the table. However, Russia will effectively get a white channel anyway because the Biden administration would never sanction Iranian entities transacting with Russian businesses once a deal is signed. Indeed, the administration has already surrendered to Iranian nuclear blackmail. Besides, it's also possible that the U.S. will provide secret guarantees to Iran or even Russia in side letters. Washington struck secret side deals in the last agreement that were never made public. Nothing prevents the White House from doing so again.
Not to be left out, China reportedly is also asking for a special carve-out for Chinese entities previously sanctioned. Russia recently approached Beijing to help finance the war effort in Ukraine. Should Joe Biden agree to any of this, it would be a political collapse of epic proportions.
What makes this all so baffling is the fact that the Iran deal of 2015 was no great achievement in the first place. Tehran did not need to cheat to reach threshold nuclear-weapons capabilities. With key constraints set to sunset, the regime was prepared to wait for a decade while the terms of the deal yielded the regime an industrial-size enrichment program, a near-zero breakout time, an advanced centrifuge-powered clandestine path to a nuclear warhead, long-range ballistic missiles that could threaten America, and access to advanced conventional weaponry to target America's allies across the Middle East. The estimated $150 billion in sanctions relief granted to Iran enabled it to fund its terrorist proxies to expand the regime's regional dominance. Worse, those funds increasingly immunized the regime against future Western sanctions.
Former President Donald Trump exited the original deal in 2018. Biden's team has vowed to restore it. But the "new" deal promises to be far worse than the original. Biden's chief negotiator in Vienna, Rob Malley, reportedly aims to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department's list of terror groups; the Guard has been responsible for terrorist attacks worldwide. He was reportedly ready to cave on U.S. sanctions against the regime's top human rights abusers, including the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is responsible for murdering thousands of Iranian dissidents in the 1980s. Biden was also prepared to lift sanctions on the office of Khamenei, a human rights abuser himself, along with his multibillion-dollar slush fund.
As our colleague Saeed Ghasseminejad calculated, under the new deal, the Islamic Republic could immediately gain access to a total sanctions relief package of up to $130 billion. And that doesn't include tens of billions in additional perks as the regime plugs back into international banks and businesses. This is not only an outrage to our regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel, which are under constant threat of Iranian missiles and terrorism. It's also an outrage to American gold star families of soldiers killed by Iran-backed terrorists. More than 1,000 of them have signed a letter urging Biden not to give the clerical regime this money, particularly when they are owed billions in damages for Iranian terrorist attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Biden has not answered their letter.
Team Biden has similarly shrugged off the controversy surrounding reports that the negotiators agreed to close one file currently open with the International Atomic Energy Agency involving the regime's production of enriched uranium metal that is key to building the core of a nuclear bomb. On three other files related to undeclared nuclear materials and activities, Biden's team agreed to let the IAEA keep trying to get answers until June. After that, based on past patterns, the Biden team will likely ignore Iran's nuclear intransigence and block punitive action by the IAEA Board of Governors.
But perhaps the worst collapse by the Biden team in Vienna was the inclusion of an "inherent guarantee" to the regime. Reports out of Tehran and other Middle Eastern capitals suggest that the Biden team offered a written guarantee stipulating that if the Iranians say there is a breach of the agreement, including if a future administration exits the deal (as Trump did in 2018), the regime in Iran will have the right to enrich uranium at 60% and to install thousands of advanced centrifuges. In other words, the Biden administration has reportedly decided to legitimize Iranian nuclear blackmail. This guarantee will, in all likelihood, be part of a series of side letters. Just as it happened in 2015, the world will never see the text of these promises. Indeed, the American public may never know the extent of Biden's concessions.
For the Biden White House, the point of these extreme concessions has always been to put the Iranian nuclear problem "in a box" so that Washington could pivot to contain the rise of the revisionist powers: Russia and China. But the agreement will feed the Iranian war machine in the Middle East. It's also a jack-in-the-box; the Iranian nuclear program springs out once restrictions sunset. As Putin has just made crystal clear: An unhinged regional aggressor backed with nuclear weapons is a nightmare to contain. The clerical regime in Iran almost certainly seeks to follow his lead.
This may, in fact, be the plan. The terms of the new Iran agreement were brokered by Russia. Putin only agreed to it because it would help to undermine the U.S.-led world order. Tehran would never assent to a deal without Putin's consent because the regime knows it will need Russia in the future.
The world has changed since Feb. 24, when Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine. Whatever the Biden White House thought it would achieve in Vienna, it must think again. This is the time for deterring, not empowering, rogue regimes.
Mark Dubowitz is CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president.