President Joe Biden is getting tough on Iran. So says Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “The Biden administration plans to reject an Iranian demand that the United States lift its designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] as a terrorist organization as a condition for renewing the 2015 nuclear agreement—putting completion of the deal in jeopardy,” Ignatius reported last Friday. “A senior administration official told me,” he continued, “that President Biden doesn’t intend to concede on the terrorist designation, even though this may be a dealbreaker.”
Critics of Biden’s effort to revive the nuclear deal hailed Ignatius’ report as a hopeful sign, an indication that the president was beginning to reverse his appeasement of the Islamic Republic. But this interpretation is unfounded, as an examination of Ignatius’ careful language reveals. The administration, he writes, “plans to reject” Iran’s demand, and the president “doesn’t intend” to make concessions. In other words, we learn from Ignatius’ anonymous source only what might happen in the future, not what is actually happening in the present. If the president truly rejects the Iranian demand, why doesn’t he just say so on the record?
The answer is that Biden is buying time by disarming his critics. For months now, numerous informed sources told the press that the negotiations with Iran were all but completed. That was partially based on the fact that the American side was fully prepared to remove the IRGC from the terrorism list. In return, however, the administration requested a face-saving gesture from Tehran (more on that below). When Tehran refused the request, the negotiations stalled. Talks broke up for Nowruz and will probably remain halted at least through Ramadan, which runs until the beginning of May.
In the meantime, the most reliable statement of the administration’s policy came not from the anonymous source whispering to Ignatius but from Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the administration’s Capitol Hill surrogate on Iran. Asked by MSNBC last Thursday if the IRGC should be delisted, Murphy said “Yes!,” with evident exasperation, as if only an idiot could think otherwise. “The practical impact of designating [the IRGC] as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is inconsequential,” he continued. “We have dozens of other terrorist designations on the IRGC that would remain.”
On the same day, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley received the same question from the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe the IRGC Quds Force to be a terrorist organization and I do not support them being delisted,” Milley answered. Milley’s view was widely misinterpreted, including by Ignatius, as proof that the IRGC would remain on the terrorism list. In fact, all Milley said was that the Quds Force, one of many subcomponents of the IRGC, should be designated. His answer dovetailed with Murphy’s view.
Milley’s legerdemain was not lost on Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran Israeli journalist. The Americans are “conning us,” Ben-Yishai wrote in a column on Saturday. “Elements in the Biden administration … are trying to kosher a creeping thing.” This colorful metaphor originates in Leviticus: “You shall not defile yourselves through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground.” Based on this injunction, Jewish dietary law forbids the consumption of insects and reptiles, not to mention many other creepy things.
While Ben-Yishai is certainly correct, the creepiest creature the administration is serving is not the delisting of the IRGC but the nuclear deal itself. If the deal goes through, the United States and the world’s other great powers will give their blessing to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In less than nine years’ time, the deal removes all meaningful limitations on the program, and it removes many other restrictions much sooner. Even during the period of formal restrictions, Iran is permitted to preserve and expand its nuclear infrastructure. Meanwhile, the deal lifts the most onerous economic sanctions the United States has imposed in response not only to Tehran’s illegal nuclear weapons program but to its support for terrorism and other malign activities. By 2031, hundreds of billions of dollars will pour into regime coffers.
Even if the IRGC remains on the terrorism list, however, its power will grow exponentially. Preserving the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation is certainly the right thing to do, but on its own it will not arrest the abject appeasement at the heart of Biden’s policy.
When President Barack Obama first sold the nuclear deal to the American public, the debate was over consequences that no one could prophesy with certainty. Whereas Obama presented a rosy future in which greater stability in the Middle East would result, his critics predicted that an empowered, enriched, and thoroughly unrepentant Islamic Republic would redouble its efforts to undermine the American-led order. The critics, we now know, won the argument. The deal abetted the rise of the Russian-Iranian alliance that turned Syrian cities into rubble; it led to the proliferation of militias across the Arab world, now armed with precision guided weaponry; and it facilitated the growth of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. To expect a different result this time around is nothing short of insane.
Which brings us back to the face-saving gesture that the Biden administration requested from the Iranians. In return for delisting the IRGC, U.S. negotiators asked Iran to promise not to kill Americans. This request resulted from the knowledge, based on solid U.S. intelligence, that the IRGC is hatching plots to kill former U.S. officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and former Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook. The IRGC is seeking to assassinate them as revenge for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force whom the Trump administration eliminated in a drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020.
The press began to uncover the Iranian assassination plots just as the Biden administration was preparing to announce a done deal, with reports first emerging in the conservative Washington Free Beacon and then spreading to more mainstream outlets. On March 6, Margaret Brennan, host of Face the Nation on CBS News, put pointed questions to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “[D]o you see the prospect for Iran agreeing to stop threatening people on U.S. soil … like they have threatened your predecessor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo?” Brennan asked. Blinken dodged the question. When Brennan restated it, Blinken dodged it again.
A week later, the Washington Examiner reported that the U.S. government has had to spend more than $2 million every month to ensure the physical safety of Pompeo and Hook. When the Associated Press independently confirmed the report, the story shamed the administration.
In order to arm itself against questions such as Brennan’s, Biden asked the Iranians to commit to end assassination plots against American former officials, then leaked news of the request. Such a commitment would at least have allowed Blinken to respond by saying, “Margaret, the Iranians have given us solemn assurances that they will not kill my predecessor, or any other former official. Our intelligence indicates that we can trust the Iranians on this.” But Tehran refused to offer any such assurance. The negotiations stalled, temporarily, within arm’s length of the finish line.
The Brennan interview is the key to understanding the “Biden gets tough” message that Ignatius dutifully transcribed on behalf of the White House. Ignatius was not assisting the administration in announcing a major policy shift. He was helping it to camouflage the vulnerability that the Brennan interview highlighted.
This communications strategy repays further reflection. The president and his staffers were fully prepared to remove the IRGC from the terror list even with full knowledge that the organization was planning to kill former U.S. officials. Their qualms emerged only when reporters learned of the plots and refused to help the administration hide them. Even then, however, the administration sought only face-saving gestures from the IRGC. The lesson: The Biden team recognizes acts of Iranian aggression not as national security threats but only as PR challenges.
That’s a lesson to keep in mind when contemplating the penetration of the U.S. Secret Service by nefarious operatives. Last Wednesday, federal prosecutors accused Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 36, of posing as Department of Homeland Security employees in order to ingratiate themselves with Americans working in law enforcement and national defense. Over a period of two years, the duo managed to befriend Secret Service agents by providing them with gifts such as “rent-free apartments (with a total yearly rent of over $40,000 per apartment), iPhones, surveillance systems, a drone, a flat screen television, a case for storing an assault rifle, a generator, and law enforcement paraphernalia,” according to an FBI federal court filing.
With five apartments, multiple passports, and copious cash at their disposal, Taherzadeh and Ali are almost certainly agents of a foreign power. Until we learn otherwise, Iran should be considered the prime suspect. Arian Taherzadeh is an obviously Iranian name. One of Haider Ali’s passports indicates multiple entries into Iran. And the IRGC has a history of planning brazen operations on U.S. soil. In 2011, it attempted to murder the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors in Washington, and last July it planned to kidnap Brooklyn-based journalist Masih Alinejad and smuggle her to Iran via Venezuela—to say nothing about the recently exposed plots against Pompeo, Bolton, and Hook.
To be sure, the public has seen no hard evidence that Taherzadeh and Ali are Iranian agents. While circumstantial, however, the evidence that has been revealed more than calls for the press and Congress to probe American officials about the prospect of an Iranian connection. But try to find news reports of the incident that even entertain the possibility that Iran is running these men. You won’t.
The administration professes to be utterly clueless about the motives of Taherzadeh and Ali. This is no defense. Either the Biden team truly has no idea who stands behind the duo, or it knows full well that Iran is the culprit but is playing dumb to shield its shabby nuclear deal diplomacy from public scrutiny. If it’s the former, then we are witnessing an intelligence fiasco, one that deserves a thorough investigation. If it’s the latter, then we are witnessing a political scandal wrapped in an intelligence fiasco tucked inside a foreign policy blunder.
But remember: For this administration, a plot to kill Americans that does not receive major press coverage is no real plot at all. Devoting scant attention to this incident, the press is following Ignatius’ example, telling us that Biden is getting tough on Iran. Give the president his due: He knows how to kosher creepy things.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.