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The one that gets away: Joe Biden’s jaded romance with Iran

Nearly two decades ago, as Americans stunned by the 9/11 attacks were still sifting through rubble on the East Coast and in Afghanistan, then-Sen. Joe Biden seized the moment to call for a revival of U.S. ties with Iran.

In a speech in Washington to the American Iranian Council, Biden laid out some modest steps the U.S. should take to court its longtime enemy, including allowing more people-to-people interactions. Biden didn’t shirk from addressing issues of concern to Washington, like Tehran’s nuclear program, and he acknowledged that anti-U.S. hardliners hold the key levers of power in Iran. But he also spoke of how ordinary Iranians had held candlelight vigils for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, and how the countries had cooperated to some degree in Afghanistan. Biden even invited Iranian lawmakers to meet with him, wherever and whenever they would like.

“I believe that an improved relationship with Iran is in the naked self-interest of the United States and, I would presume to suggest, Iran’s interest as well,” the Delaware Democrat, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, said in the March 2002 speech.

Despite reverberating in Iran, a negative reaction from that country’s supreme leader killed hopes that Biden’s remarks would yield a diplomatic breakthrough. Still, the speech, and the mere fact that Biden gave it, was emblematic of his approach to the Islamic Republic throughout his decades in public life.

In fact, years before Barack Obama ran for president on a platform that included reaching out to adversaries like Iran, Biden was calling for engagement with the Middle Eastern nation, meeting with its top diplomats and even flirting with a visit. At one point, a critic derided him as “Tehran’s favorite senator.”

A POLITICO review of available records, speeches, and congressional statements found that when it came to Iran, Biden has long tried to walk a careful path, one that is wary, yet hopeful; politically aware, yet politically risky; and often focused on incremental gains in the hopes of seeding long-term results.

Today, as president, Biden is in an increasingly tense faceoff with Tehran over how, or whether, to salvage an internationally negotiated 2015 deal that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The stakes are high: If the deal collapses, it raises the odds of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and pushes Iran toward a more open conflict with Israel and some Arab states.

The politics, meanwhile, are toxic: pitting the U.S. against close friend Israel, straining America’s ties with its European allies, and giving Republicans a cudgel with which to pummel Biden. Yet, Biden appears willing to give nuclear diplomacy with Iran a shot, at least for now.

Biden has “always taken a far-sighted view” on Iran, said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Republican who helped arrange a 2003 meeting between Biden and Javad Zarif, now Iran’s foreign minister. “You just can’t accept that Iran’s going to be an enemy forever and ever and ever — something’s going to happen. If nothing else, you’ll have generational change.”

The loss of a friend

When Biden entered the U.S. Senate, in 1973, Iran was one of America’s top allies in the Middle East, a well-placed friend amid the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Iran’s American-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also happened to be a major purchaser of U.S. weapons, which at times concerned U.S. lawmakers, including, documents suggest, Biden.

As Biden entered his second term, a popular backlash against the shah and his West-loving ways led to his overthrow in a revolution that brought Islamists to power in Tehran. The ensuing months saw Iranians hold hostage dozens of American diplomats, the official severing of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations and the death of the shah from cancer.

Biden’s papers from his days in the Senate remain unavailable to the public, making it challenging to comprehensively evaluate his record. There also is little in news archives to indicate that the young senator was a major voice during the extraordinary international drama.

However, on April 6, 1980 — the day before then-President Jimmy Carter severed diplomatic relations with Iran — an Associated Press story places Biden in Athens, Greece, after he and other senators had visited a U.S. Navy carrier. The lawmakers told reporters that U.S. Navy pilots appeared “anxious to go into action and hit selected targets in Iran” in a bid to free the Americans being held hostage.

“The task force is close enough to hit targets in any country in the area. Our military presence could be deployed if political solutions fail to win the hostages’ freedom,” Biden is quoted as saying.

At the time, Biden and his colleagues declined to offer their own opinions on whether it was a good idea to use military force to secure the hostages, although Biden said in another interview that month that he didn’t think it was ideal. Days later, a U.S. military mission aimed at rescuing the hostages ended disastrously, leaving eight U.S. troops dead.

Over the next decade, Biden further established his bona fides as a foreign policy specialist and remained engaged on Iran issues, though often in ways outside the immediate core rifts between Washington and Tehran.

For instance, Biden was concerned about the spread of drug smuggling from the Middle East and South Asia, which he said was fueling crime and addiction in the West. “The foreign-policy difficulties we and our allies are experiencing in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are directly linked to the domestic phenomena of increased rates of overdose deaths, heroin addiction and illegal black marketeering,” Biden stated as he released a Senate report about the heroin trade in July 1980.

Biden also expressed worries about nuclear and conventional arms races in the Middle East. The loss of Iran as an ally added to his fears. Biden acknowledged that, in 1979, he’d approached China’s Deng Xiaoping about cooperating on monitoring Soviet weapons activity — an idea the Carter administration had reportedly proposed earlier. Biden said he brought it up in part because America had lost access to two listening posts in Iran. Working with the Chinese would help the U.S. verify that the Soviets were living up to the terms of the arms control treaties that Biden had supported. The New York Times would later report, in 1981, that Beijing and the U.S. were sharing intelligence from a post that monitored Soviet missile tests.

The Iranian revolution made Biden wary of banking on permanence in the Middle East, or, for that matter, assuming that sudden change would bring an outcome favorable to the United States. He generally avoided overly simplistic characterizations of the Middle East’s dynamics, such as blaming one country for all of the region’s problems. Early in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, Biden said one reason he opposed a deal to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia — aside from the possible threat it posed to Israel — was that he wasn’t sure the U.S.-friendly Saudi monarchy would always be there.

“We should have learned from the fall of the shah that our sophisticated military equipment should not be entrusted to unstable regimes,” Biden wrote. “It might appear that the presence of hundreds of additional American technical specialists would provide us with some leverage over Saudi use of the offensive equipment involved in this sale. But, again, our Iran experience should teach us that at best any such leverage may prove slight, and that at worst a change in government or the outbreak of another regional war could entrap both our personnel and our policies.”

In the years that followed, Iran came up in other contexts for Biden, including his role investigating what Reagan knew and did during the Iran-Contra scandal. After he’d announced he would run for president, Biden said in 1987 that he was prepared to believe Reagan’s insistence that he’d been unaware of the diversion of Iranian arms sales funds to Nicaraguan rebels. He declined to speculate on how Congress should respond. ’We want the president to succeed because the country should not have to go through another failed presidency,’’ he said.

The Delaware Democrat at times could be bellicose, at least rhetorically, when it came to Iran. He warned in 1996 that if Iran was indeed behind the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia, it was an “act of war.” When asked how to respond, he said the U.S. could take “whatever action it deems appropriate.”

All along, Biden grew increasingly concerned about Iran seeking to expand its military capacity, including its missile program and potentially building a nuclear weapon.

When asked by Fox News in 1998 which country — Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Islamist-ruled Iran — posed a greater threat to the United States, Biden said, “I think Iran and its missile capacity may be longer term a greater threat.” He added that he had hope that Tehran might choose a different path, alluding to the election of a reform-minded cleric, Mohammad Khatami, as the country’s president, but that he needed proof.

“I want to see the mullahs actually change their attitude,” Biden said.

‘We have to get in the game’

Khatami’s election led to a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations at the turn of the century, with the Iranian president encouraging increased cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries. In response, then-President Bill Clinton eased some economic sanctions on Iran.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, also helped improve relations somewhat. Iran, a Shia Muslim-majority country, did not care for the extreme Sunni Islamist government of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was happy to see the U.S. topple it. Iran’s government even reportedly helped fund and supply the leaders of Northern Alliance militias that the U.S. turned to for help in ousting the Taliban government. But U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to list Iran as an “Axis of Evil” nation in his January 2002 State of the Union speech dealt a blow to the improving ties.

Biden, though, didn’t want to give up.

In the weeks immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Biden — known for a lack of verbal discipline — suggested to aides, in comments captured by The New Republic, that maybe America should make a grand gesture of sorts to a region often suspicious of its motives. “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran,” Biden is quoted as saying. (The offhand suggestion did not go over well with his staffers, one of whom responded: “I think they’d send it back.”)

Nearly two months after Bush placed Iran in an “Axis of Evil,” Biden spoke to the American Iranian Council, calling for the U.S. to make positive overtures to Iran without expecting much in return. The point, he noted, was to improve America’s relationship with the Iranian people as the internal struggles between hardliners and reformists in Iran’s government played out. In that speech, Biden also said, almost as an aside, “I believe that the U.S. will ultimately have to facilitate a regime-change in Iraq.”

Hagel, then a GOP senator from Nebraska, applauded Biden’s overture to Iran, asking that his March 2002 speech be printed in the Congressional Record. Hagel had, through other contacts, managed to establish connections with Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, including Iran’s ambassador to the world body, Javad Zarif. He mentioned this to Biden, who expressed interest. So Hagel took Biden with him to see the American-educated Iranian diplomat in early 2003.

Hagel recalls the men feasting on “tremendous, beautiful, delicious Persian food” and talking in subtle ways about all manner of issues, even Iran’s nuclear program and ways the two countries could find common ground. The men were exceedingly mindful of the sensitivity of the gathering. “We talked about everything really, but nothing that would put us on a path of confrontation,” Hagel said. “But we didn’t shy away from anything, either — we talked in general ways about many things.”

Biden was his usual gregarious self. Zarif, whose government was in all likelihood recording the entire conversation, was reserved, but “he was studying Biden at every moment and listening to him very carefully,” Hagel said. Neither side was in a position to make any serious commitments anyway, so in some ways “it was kind of a typical first date,” Hagel said. Afterward, Hagel said, he and Biden walked away feeling good about having a personal tie to Zarif, who they guessed, correctly, would rise up in Iranian politics.

U.S.-Iranian relations would get worse in the coming years. In part that was due to growing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even though Tehran has always insisted it is not seeking the bomb. But it also resulted from the fallout from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which fueled a sectarian civil war that Iran tried to exploit through its connections with Shia Muslim Iraqi leaders and militiamen.

In the months after Baghdad fell, there was talk of whether the United States should march into Tehran, or at least stage some sort of military strike against Iran. Biden made it clear he thought that was a bad idea.

“We should not talk about the use of force against Iran now. We should take care of first things first,” he told Fox News. “And the way to take care of what we have now, and the way to affect events in Iran most stunningly, is to lock down and get control of Iraq. That will have a really salutary impact upon Iran, as opposed to threatening Iran while we know we are going to have seven of 10 divisions of the United States Army tied down in Iraq and other places.”

Over the next year, as the hardliner versus moderate struggle intensified inside Iran’s government, Biden as well as other U.S. lawmakers sought potential diplomatic openings. The administration of George W. Bush didn’t object, and in some cases openly blessed increased contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials. The not-so-subtle goal was to boost the reformist Iranians. “There are clearly significant elements today in Iran who believe they need a more normalized relationship with the United States in order for them to fulfill their economic and political potential in the world,” Biden was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.

In January 2004, Biden met with Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Around the same time, a group of congressional aides, including, according to one report, a Biden staffer, almost visited Iran to lay the groundwork for a later trip by U.S. lawmakers. But Iranian officials scuttled the plan.

Iran’s hardliners outmaneuvered the reformists in the immediate years that followed, and the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran’s president. The deepening violence in Iraq added to tensions as Iran, through political and military links, seemed determined to ensure that Shia Muslims would dominate rule in the neighbor country. At the same time, Iran’s nuclear progress drew even more international concern.

Biden tried to find a middle path, even if it meant openly clashing with Kharrazi a year after their private meeting. In various forums, the senator said the United States shouldn’t be pushing for regime change in Iran, but that it should coordinate with European countries talking to Tehran about reining in its nuclear program.

“I’d love to see the regime change, but I think the policy should be: How do we prevent them from getting nuclear weapons? How do we prevent them from moving forward in missile technology and how do we prevent them from becoming the kind of irritant and trouble in … Iraq,” Biden said on NBC News in June 2005. “That should be the policy. And it seems to me in order to do that, you have to deal with them. It’s going to be a tough, tough, tough negotiation, but we have to get in the game. We have to actually engage them.”

Biden urged the Bush administration to talk to the Iranians as well as Syria’s government to help tamp down the chaos in Iraq. “The last thing they want is a civil war [in Iraq],” he insisted in fall 2006. But he also was cast as being naïve about Iran’s intentions. When he proposed dividing Iraq into three largely autonomous parts (he insisted it was not a hard partition), some analysts said Iran would exploit the set-up, especially if the U.S. withdrew its troops.

As Iraq’s woes deepened, no weapons of mass destruction were found there and Biden embarked on another run for president, he voted against a Senate resolution urging Bush to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, saying he didn’t want Bush to use it as a justification for war with Iran. And he kept pressing for a way short of military force to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program.

Biden dropped out of the 2008 presidential race relatively early, but in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing held just weeks before Barack Obama selected him as his vice president, he called for the U.S. to use both negotiations and sanctions to cajole Iran into a nuclear agreement. He also argued that the U.S. should establish a diplomatic presence in Iran.

“A diplomatic presence would increase our knowledge of the forces at work inside Iran. It would give us a stronger diplomatic hand to play and it would decrease the chances of miscalculation,” he said.

Obama’s salesman

Conservatives derided Biden’s approach to Iran.

In a column in August 2008, Middle East scholar Michael Rubin called Biden “Tehran’s favorite senator,” and declared: “Biden’s unyielding pursuit of ‘engagement’ with Iran for more than a decade has made it easier for Tehran to pursue its nuclear program.” Rubin questioned Obama’s judgment in selecting Biden as his running mate.

But in Obama, Biden had found a president with similar views on how to approach Iran. Both wanted to diplomatically engage the country, but both were willing to ramp up sanctions to nudge Iran into talks. Obama in particular was keen to break away from ingrained U.S. habits on foreign policy, including by being willing to reach out to longtime adversaries.

In a major speech just a few weeks after the Obama administration took office, Biden said the U.S. wanted to talk to Iran, but that it would take preemptive action to stop Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. He turned to tough talk on Iran more than once in the early days of the administration. Months after the Iranian regime cracked down on protesters questioning the results of the 2009 presidential vote that gave a second term to Ahmadinejad, Biden warned that Iran’s leaders are “sowing the seeds for their own destruction.” But even as Biden chided the Iranian government over the disputed election, he also stressed that America’s national interest hadn’t changed: it still wanted to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.

Over the next several years, the Obama administration saw various pieces of its strategy to rein in the Iranian nuclear program fall into place; the plan was aided by the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, as Iran’s president, though quiet U.S.-Iran discussions began under Ahmadinejad, the hardliner. The result was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The agreement, put together through the efforts of several countries beyond just Iran and America, lifted U.S. and international nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe limits on its nuclear program.

Biden personally was not central to the negotiation of the Iran agreement, at least not the way Secretary of State John Kerry or Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz were. The president tasked Biden with other portfolios, including relations with Ukraine following the 2014 Russian invasion of that country. Biden’s son Beau died in May 2015, which also appeared to lead the vice president to temporarily lower his profile. But Biden was kept in the loop about the Iran talks and could often be relied upon to raise concerns about the political palatability of the moves under consideration.

As the particulars of the nuclear deal came into focus, Biden homed in some of the technicalities, with a special concern about the measures designed to inspect and verify that Iran was complying with the agreement. He was especially delighted with one of the most complicated yet most clever features of the deal, called the “snapback.” The snapback, in short, gave the U.S. the ability to automatically reimpose sanctions on Iran through its veto at the United Nations Security Council.

Biden’s interest in the details of the deal arose from his awareness that the agreement had to be airtight to win over U.S. lawmakers, former Obama aides said. That included several moderate and conservative Democrats with hawkish views toward Iran.

The nuclear deal was not a treaty requiring Senate confirmation. But prior to the agreement being reached in July 2015, Congress had pushed through a law that gave it some oversight. After the agreement was unveiled, Republican opponents tried to pass a resolution disapproving it, and the Obama team had to scramble to get a critical mass of Democrats to support the deal.

Biden became a key player then, reaching out to former colleagues on the Hill to sell the deal. He helped secure the support of people like Sen. Chris Coons, a moderate Democrat representing Biden’s Delaware. “He understood the debate that was going to play out in Congress before it happened,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser under Obama.

Rhodes said Biden, chastened by the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, had clearly grown weary of using American force in places like the Middle East. “Like all of us, he was worried about another war, or getting pulled into the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Iran,” he said.

Some pro-Israel organizations were ardent opponents of the nuclear agreement, as was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made little secret of his disdain for Obama. These critics saw Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and viewed the 2015 agreement as too favorable to Iran in the long run. (Iran has long insisted its nuclear program was meant for scientific, medical and other peaceful reasons, not to make a bomb.)

Despite Biden’s openness toward engaging Iran, he’d also managed to maintain good relations with many on this side of the spectrum, so Obama relied upon him to try to argue the merits of the deal to them. Biden even spoke at a Jewish community center in Florida, where he insisted, “I firmly believe [the deal] will make us and Israel safer, not weaker.”

At the time, Biden was Obama’s emissary. Nearly six years later, now-President Biden owns the Iran policy.

‘If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it’

In between, there was Donald Trump.

The Republican campaigned against virtually everything Obama had accomplished, and he took office intent on dismantling, among other things, the Iran deal. In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement.

In quitting, Trump reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement, while piling on additional ones as well. In the years since, Iran has responded by taking steps that put it out of compliance with the deal, such as higher-level enrichment of uranium.

The deal itself, while not completely dead, is already five years old and closer to the expiration dates for some of its clauses. Republicans remain dead set against a return to the agreement, as is Israel.

Biden says he wants to first return to the original agreement by lifting sanctions, provided that Iran resumes complying with the deal. He’s also called on Iran to sit down for talks on a longer-lasting, more sophisticated agreement that could even address non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s support for terrorist groups. Iran hasn’t committed to doing so.

For now, Biden is relying on a delegation of diplomats to engage in indirect negotiations with Iran about saving the 2015 agreement. But he himself isn’t publicly showing much urgency on the Iran portfolio.

Given that he has numerous other challenges to deal with, including a pandemic-damaged U.S. economy, it may be foolish to expend much political capital on an issue involving Iran. But Hagel said Biden also understands that when it comes to such diplomatic dances, neither side — Iran nor the United States — can look too eager, or each risks appearing weak to the other.

“He’s very clear-eyed. He understands reality, the cold brutal facts of reality,” Hagel said, adding that he’d summarize Biden’s approach to Iran as “if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it, but keep trying.”

The longer the talks drag on, though, the more time anti-deal forces have to rally opposition to reviving the agreement. The critics already are insisting that Biden not lift sanctions on Iran, thus effectively killing the nuclear deal. Israel, meanwhile, is suspected to be behind recent efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli officials have repeatedly told the Biden administration that it’s pointless to return to what they believe is a flawed deal.

Iran is about to hold a presidential election that could bring to power a hardliner resistant to talks with the United States. And over time, the diplomatic dancing will edge closer to the campaign season for the U.S. 2022 midterm elections. If Biden is serious about saving the 2015 deal, he may need to make his intentions even more clear, perhaps wading directly into the negotiations and engaging Iran the way he’s often called on America to do.

“Weirdly, your political space closes with time, and you don’t get points for performative negotiation,” Rhodes said.

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