Jonathan S. Tobin
(JNS) For those who think the Biden administration might be drifting back to a more realistic position on Iran, the announcement that American refueling aircraft will take part in an upcoming Israeli military exercise was good news. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. planes will join Israeli fighter bombers in what is widely seen as a practice session for bombing Iran.
This ought to be considered a message to Iran that the United States has options other than the fruitless negotiations to forestall their nuclear ambitions. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hopes it means that Tehran’s intransigent unwillingness to re-enter the weak nuclear deal it concluded with former President Barack Obama has forced the Americans, whether they wanted to or not, to reaffirm their alliance with the Jewish state.
But it’s not as simple as that.
That’s because the real negotiations over a new Iran nuclear deal aren’t taking place in Vienna with the Russians—with whom, the Democratic administration thinks itself to be “at war” with over the invasion of Ukraine—acting as intermediaries between the Americans and the Iranians. The decisive talks are going on in Washington as the Biden administration and its progressive allies conduct an internal debate as to whether they should give in to one of Tehran’s demands.
Biden’s foreign-policy team, which is led by chief Iran negotiator and veteran appeaser Robert Malley, has already agreed to many of the theocratic regime’s stipulations about a new, weaker version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was the signature foreign-policy achievement of the Obama administration. Rather than merely re-entering the old pact, which enriched and empowered them, the Iranians have held out for even looser terms and more cash rewards. But one of their demands has, at least so far, been a bridge too far for Biden: removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The IRGC is part of Iran’s armed forces. But it also runs a network of international terrorist groups. The IRGC organizes the funding and training of Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas and Houthi terrorists, and thus bears responsibility for their numerous crimes. It has also slaughtered countless Iranian citizens who ran afoul of their tyrannical government. Its power also extends to portions of the Iranian economy, making it the backbone of the theocracy.
But until the Trump administration, it avoided the designation as a terrorist group in large measure because U.S. administrations were eager to maintain better relations with Tehran. While other sanctions have been imposed on the IRGC and its leadership, the terrorist designation also has great symbolic value. The label makes it clear that the United States isn’t deceived by Iran’s attempts to disassociate the group and/or its so-called military wing from the regime it serves. Were it to be removed from that list, it would do more than vindicate Iranian efforts to whitewash their criminal activities. It would be a signal that the United States was unconcerned with Tehran’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the region and establish its hegemony.
So far, President Joe Biden, supported by the more moderate wing of his party, has resisted the appeal to lift the terrorism label from the IRGC. He understands—as perhaps his progressive allies do not—that this is the sort of gesture that would be understood by the American people as confirmation of his weakness and inability to stand up to the country’s enemies and rogue regimes.
But with each passing week, the chorus of dissent about this decision from progressives has grown louder. And, to the chagrin of those who are hoping that Biden stands his ground, even the most senior officials in the administration have expressed their ambivalence about maintaining this stance.
For instance, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before Congress recently about the Iran negotiations, he gave both sides of the argument reason to worry. He assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the designation would not be lifted unless Iran modified its behavior, presumably to halt the terrorist activity that has been integral to the IRGC’s existence since it was founded shortly after the Islamist regime took over the country in 1979. However, he followed that up by saying that he thought the designation was largely meaningless.
Others on the left have echoed this argument, including Matt Duss, the foreign-policy adviser of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who said that by sticking to the terrorist designation of the IRGC, Biden had fallen into a trap set for him by Trump that was intended to make it harder to revive the JCPOA.
But among the loudest voices on the designation are American Jewish critics of Israel.
The left-wing J Street lobby is eager for the IRGC to get off the list and has argued that Biden is wrong to think that he will pay any political price for doing so. Anti-Zionist polemicist Peter Beinart wrote in The New York Times that by being “afraid of the politics” of kashering the IRGC, Biden is failing “to make the world safer.”
That argument is particularly disingenuous. A new Iran deal would actually make the world a lot less safe since, far from stopping Iran from getting a weapon, the original JCPOA and a new, weaker version would actually guarantee that it would get one once the terms expired in just a few years. In the meantime, the money it would get from the lifting of sanctions and the knowledge that the United States was abandoning the security interests of Israel and its Arab allies would make Iran even more dangerous.
Why, then, is J Street and some of its even more radical anti-Zionist allies on the left lobbying hard on behalf of the IRGC?
Part of it is a knee-jerk reflex to defend anything associated with the Obama administration and to reject the more sensible policies of Trump, who rightly understood that sooner or later, his predecessor’s deal would have to be scrapped and replaced with something tougher that would actually strip Iran of its growing nuclear capabilities.
This fight demonstrates how partisan instincts—when combined with antipathy for the security interests of Israel—have created a constituency even among Jews that is willing to rationalize a policy that signals a realignment of American foreign policy away from its traditional allies and towards a rapprochement with Iran.
Will they succeed? The pressure on Biden to relent on the IRGC is growing, helped by the Iranians’ signals that if a new deal isn’t signed, they will move even closer to nuclear threshold status. Having bluffed their way into many concessions before this, Tehran has every reason to think that they’ll eventually get their way on the IRGC. And, as in the past, the willingness of Jewish groups to provide cover for Iran appeasers could make the difference.
That Jewish groups are prepared to pretend that an entity that has already shed so much Jewish blood is not a terrorist group is appalling. One would think that acting to legitimize the IRGC would be too far even for those groups that are most committed to the myth that Obama had halted Iran’s nuclear program and that Trump let them make progress towards a weapon by scrapping the deal. As much as some of these groups like to posture about being “pro-peace,” what they seem most interested in is both weakening Israel and strengthening those entities that are actually committed to Israel’s extinction. The same is true for the Jewish progressives like Malley, who occupy some of the most influential positions inside the administration.
In that sense, the debate about the IRGC has the sort of symbolic value that is—contrary to Blinken’s ambivalence—indicative that there is no concession too humiliating for the United States they are not willing to support as long as it is perceived as helping Iran and hurting Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.