The Biden Administration Is Prioritizing the Iran Deal Over Ukrainian Security

Accordingly to press reports, the Biden administration is considering entering a very narrow nuclear agreement with Iran that would impose many fewer restrictions on that country’s nuclear program than the original Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

Most analysts ascribe the administration’s renewed interest in diplomacy with Iran to electoral politics—the deal under consideration won’t do much to restrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but it can be expected to postpone any crisis with Iran till after the 2024 presidential election. But there is an even more urgent Ukraine problem that may be motivating the administration to want a deal now.

On October 18, 2023 a UN-imposed prohibition of the export of missile systems by Iran will expire pursuant to the provisions of the JCPOA. The end of this embargo will strengthen Russia’s hand in Ukraine, because Iran is one of the only countries that has been providing weapons to Russia in support of President Putin’s war of aggression. Most notably, Iran has been transferring drones that Russia has been using to conduct a brutal aerial campaign targeting Ukrainian cities and civilians.

The Biden administration asserted months ago that provision of these drones violates the UN prohibition. Iran disputes this, insisting that any drones it has transferred are exempt from the UN prohibition due to their limited range. However, in deference to UN restrictions, Iran reportedly has refrained from exporting longer-range missiles to Russia that unquestionably would be subject to the prohibition, such as its 700-kilometer range Zolfaghar missile, and its 300-kilometer range Fateh-110 missile.

There will be no remaining legal restrictions on drone and missile transfers from Iran to Russia after the UN prohibition expires on October 18 unless the Biden administration and America’s allies in Europe stop this from happening. It can be done. If any “JCPOA participant state” complains to the Security Council about “significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA,” a process will be triggered under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 leading automatically to the “snapback” of all UN sanctions that were in place against Iran prior to the JCPOA.

Such a snapback would not only have the effect of keeping in place the UN prohibition of missile and drone transfers by Iran, but would also re-impose on Iran the UN embargo on transfers of conventional arms that expired in October 2020.

The conventional arms embargo would render illegal all forms of military assistance by Iran to Russia, including the short-range combat drones and artillery shells and ammunition it is currently providing. It would also render illegal the weapons transfers that Russia is making to Iran in exchange for Iran’s support of the Russian war effort, including the promised delivery of Su-35 fighter aircraft.

Neither the Biden administration nor the Europeans want to trigger a sanctions snapback because this would be an admission that their effort over the past two and a half years to persuade Iran to rejoin the JCPOA has failed.

But allowing the missile transfer ban to expire is a choice that the administration and its European allies are making, despite the fact that it will benefit Russia and increase the threats facing Ukraine. And unfortunately for the administration, at about the same time the choice takes effect, it will need Congress to vote on appropriating billions more in U.S. assistance to Ukraine.

The most recent $45 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine appropriated by Congress last December is expected to run out by the end of October. If Congress does not appropriate more money when this happens, the United States will have to suspend military and financial support to the Ukrainian war effort.

Persuading Congress to appropriate billions more for Ukraine will be a challenge, especially in the House of Representatives, where the MAGA wing of the Republican party has become increasingly opposed to funding the war.

Congressional skeptics of the next Ukraine aid request are sure to ask the Biden administration why they should appropriate tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for the war when neither the United States nor its allies are taking the seemingly obvious step of slamming shut the legal door on Iranian military aid to Moscow.

The administration would like to excuse itself by explaining that it is powerless to take this step thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. Only Britain, France and Germany can still trigger a sanctions snapback, it could argue.

But it knows this argument would backfire politically. Blaming Europe for allowing UN sanctions on Iran to lapse would only confirm the belief of critics of Biden’s Ukraine policy that America’s allies are cynically expecting U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for all the things they could do to help Ukraine, but are choosing not to do.

Hence the appeal of entering a new deal now which the Administration can argue obliges it not to increase sanctions pressure against Iran.

This may offer a convenient answer to those in Congress who ask why it is so urgent to provide more U.S. assistance to Ukraine when allied governments have decided to acquiesce in Iran’s rearmament of Russia. But it will not obscure the fact that the administration and its allies in Europe have chosen to prioritize their dreams of reviving the JCPOA over the security of Ukraine.

 Stephen Rademaker is a JINSA Gemunder Center Senior Advisor. He is senior of counsel at Covington & Burling and a former assistant secretary of state. 

Originally published in Real Clear World.