Patrick Mahomes failing to find the end zone was the biggest surprise from last night’s Super Bowl, but this momentary stall from Joe Biden qualifies for the list as well. In the traditional game-day presidential interview, CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell asked the new president whether the US will re-enter the Iran deal by lifting the sanctions imposed by Donald Trump. “No” was Biden’s one-word response, and was even less loquacious when affirming that Iran would have to stop all enrichment first:
“CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell spoke to Mr. Biden in his first network news interview since his inauguration. It will air in the 4 p.m. hour ahead of the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“Will the U.S. lift sanctions first in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table?” O’Donnell asked.
“No,” Mr. Biden responded.
“They have to stop enriching uranium first?” O’Donnell asked.
Mr. Biden nodded affirmatively.
Biden seemed unable to spit out more than a single word about it, and for good reason. He ran on Trump’s foreign-policy recklessness, especially on Iran and reimposing sanctions, and Biden repeatedly pledged to get the US back into Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Bringing on Robert Malley, as Biden did two weeks ago, supposedly signaled Biden’s willingness to completely reverse Trump’s direction in the region, shifting back to Iran after Trump’s shift toward the Sunni Arab states.
As late as Friday, the Washington Post reported that Biden was looking for ways around Congress to loosen the economic pressure on Tehran, although that also offered a hint that Iran would have to move first:
The Biden administration has begun mapping out how the United States might rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran, as the White House pledged Friday to tightly align its Iran policy with European nations sidelined by the Trump administration.
A central question facing the White House is whether to trade U.S. actions for Iranian ones as a way of bringing both nations back within the fold of the 2015 agreement, something European nations generally support but many in Congress would be likely to oppose. …
The timeline for a potential resurrection of the deal is “really up to Iran,” she added. “If Iran comes back into full compliance with the obligations” of the deal, “the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a longer and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”
By the time O’Donnell’s interview aired, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei had already answered Biden:
Iran’s supreme leader on Sunday urged the United States to lift all sanctions if it wants Iran to live up to commitments under its nuclear deal with world powers, state TV reported, his first comments on the matter since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.
“If (the U.S.) wants Iran to return to its commitments, it must lift all sanctions in practice, then we will do verification … then we will return to our commitments,” state TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying. …
“This is the definitive and irreversible policy of the Islamic Republic, and all of the country’s officials are unanimous on this, and no one will deviate from it,” Khamenei added Sunday, reiterating Iranian leaders’ previous remarks that the U.S. must ease its sanctions before Iran comes back into compliance.
Khamenei must feel that he took the measure of Biden and his team of Obama-era holdovers in 2015. That administration caved on sanctions and gave up almost everything of value up front in exchange for a largely uncheckable pledge to stop developing weapons-grade uranium for only a decade or so. Iran got access to $150 billion in assets, which they promptly used to shore up the mullahs’ standing at home and to fund its proxy armies and ballistic-missile programs. Khamenei can be forgiven if he thinks Biden’s cut from the same feckless cloth — and he’s almost certainly correct.
Still, it’s a bit surprising still to see Biden stick to sanctions now, even if it looked as though he’d swallowed a bug while doing so. Perhaps his first contacts with the Sunni nations involved with the Abraham Accord have told Biden in no uncertain terms that they expect the US to stick to its Sunni-oriented foreign policy and containment of Iran. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu will make that clear as well, assuming he has not already had the opportunity to do so. Having that collapse as a consequence of obsequiously appeasing the radical-Islamist mullahcracy in Tehran would be a political disaster at home for Biden. That policy only worked as long as the Obama administration kept up the pretense that normalization between Sunnis and Israel was impossible without caving to the Palestinians, and Trump exposed that as nonsense. Iran is a far greater threat than Palestinian unrest, and not even the Saudis are silent on Fatah’s backstabbing any longer.
Don’t bet on Biden staring down Khamenei, though. He could barely mouth the word “no” in this instance and couldn’t even articulate a tough response to O’Donnell’s follow-up. I’d love to see Biden stick to this and force the mullahs into either total transparency on its nuclear-weapons program or outright collapse in favor of democracy, but Biden has a long track record of getting foreign-policy issues wrong. He’ll need to get an Iran deal to appease his own appeasement wing at some point, and Khamenei knows it.