On Sept. 12, the world saw again the true face of the Iranian regime. Despite a global campaign to spare the life of a 27-year old wrestling champion named Navid Afkari, he was executed after being forced to confess a crime he didn't commit.
Afkari was one of tens of thousands of Iranians who took to the streets in 2018 in protest of a corrupt regime. He was arrested and, after being tortured, confessed to killing a security official, despite some video evidence that clears him of the crime.
It's not surprising that former Vice President Joe Biden would condemn Iran for Afkari's death, as he did on Twitter the day it happened. But Biden's tweet won't mean much if he keeps his promise to attempt to bring America back into the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the administration in which he served. Biden has said before that he would not re-enter that deal unilaterally, and would only lift the sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed on Iran if and when Iran complied with its nuclear obligations.
This week, he provided more detail in an op-ed for CNN. "If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations," he writes.
In the past, Biden and his aides have said those negotiations would address some of the weaknesses in the original agreement, such as the sunsets on some of the nuclear restrictions and the U.N. conventional arms embargo. Biden now says that his diplomacy with Iran would also include "working aggressively to free unjustly detained Americans and calling out the regime for its ongoing violations of human rights."
That is better than the diplomatic strategy of the Obama administration, which claimed to separate the freeing of detained Americans and human-rights issues from the nuclear file. In the end, the U.S. secured the freedom of some Americans detained by Iran after releasing funds Iran paid America for arms sales that were canceled after the 1979 revolution. Those payments were delivered as pallets of cash.
Nonetheless, Biden's approach to Iran is a recipe for failure. Even if Iran returns to the nuclear deal, the U.S. will find itself in partnership with a regime that continues to wage proxy wars in the region and regularly brutalizes its own population. Aside from the moral dilemma such an arrangement entails, the approach assumes that the regime will never lose its grip. How will the next Iranian government view an American foreign policy that enriched its oppressors and failed to stand up for human rights?
A better approach for Biden — and for that matter Trump, who posted an uncharacteristically polite tweet earlier this month telling Iran's leaders he "would greatly appreciate if you would spare this young man's life … Thank you!" — would be for the U.S. to use the leverage of sanctions relief to get political prisoners and U.S. hostages released. "The leverage of maximum pressure should not be wasted," said Cameron Khansarinia, the policy director of the National Union for Democracy in Iran. Biden's approach would squander that leverage and relieve sanctions in exchange for compliance on the nuclear deal.
In addition, Khansarinia said, Biden should commit to bolstering Iranian civil society. The U.S. should continue to invest in technology that helps Iranians get access to the internet without going through servers controlled by the regime, he said. And Iranian assets seized by the U.S. Treasury, should be set aside for funds to help families of striking labor unions in Iran.
Most important, Khansarinia said, a Biden administration should be careful in its public statements, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is, to separate the Iranian people from the regime that purports to represent them. "Iranians do not want the U.S. government to overthrow the Iranian regime for them," he said. "They will do this themselves. What they are looking for is support."
That is a good rule of thumb for both Biden — and for Trump, who has expressed an eagerness to negotiate with Iran's leaders. A deal with a regime that executes a popular wrestler for protesting its misrule is not a step toward peace. It only puts America on the wrong side of Iranian history.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports — More Here.
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