There isn’t a week that goes by that one of Joe Biden’s national security team claims US patience with Iran to re-enter negotiations on the JCPOA is wearing thin. If negotiations are further stalled, the Administration reports a plan B, though without specifics. In light of Biden previously lifting sanctions against several former Iranian officials and energy companies, his course of action at first seems ambiguous.
However, I believe the answer to Joe Biden’s Iran decision is found in a story written in 1974 by management professor Jerry Harvey called “The Abilene Paradox.” It tells the tale of four people sitting in a home in West Texas on the hottest day of the year trying to decide what to do for the day. One person suggests they drive 53 miles through a dust storm to Abilene in the 104-degree temperature to dine at a mediocre cafeteria. No one counters this absurd proposal, so they take the drive to Abilene. Upon their return, they share their experiences in a debriefing that lasted longer than the conversation earlier in the day. No one enjoyed the trip. They realized it was a mistake to support the suggestion and later, there were recriminations on who was responsible.
In the JCPOA parallel to “The Abilene Paradox,” the four people in the room are President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Iran Envoy Robert Malley. Similar to “The Abilene Paradox,” the JCPOA deliberation is an example of collective decision-making with no serious dissent that leads to dangerous outcomes for which there are no upsides and numerous downsides.
The vision that a diplomatic solution is still a viable path forward would normally be of grave concern given everything we know about Iran, its missile program, terrorism throughout the region, continued attacks on our troops and enhanced nuclear enrichment. Nevertheless, the Administration is steadfast to their core beliefs: a new agreement is better than no agreement despite its 2031 expiration date; eliminating sanctions will yield tangible compromises as they still want to engage with the world; alignment with our European allies is critical; and allowing Iran regional dominance will create stability and satisfy them. Essentially, the Administration appears willing to reward Iran for its bad behaviors.
In its quest to re-join the JCPOA, the Biden Administration disregards, or understates the defining issues. Since 2015, Iranian leadership refuses to change any aspect of the original JCPOA, or negotiate their burgeoning ballistic missile program and support of terrorist militias. What is imagined by the Administration as a hardline negotiating tactic, is in fact sacrosanct to Iran; continued negotiations simply reflect American weakness.
The JCPOA failed before it was even signed. The Iranians lied about not having a nuclear program and pre-purchased replacement parts for the Arak reactor before deactivating it. They then exceeded heavy water requirements and broke enrichment program thresholds. The grossly deficient inspection regimen is toothless. The Administration appears to ignore these breaches and deceptions.
Iran’s terrorist activities expanded in Yemen. Outside the region, Iran kidnapped dissidents, attempted to abduct an exiled journalist in New York City, highjacked a freighter and murdered a British and Romanian national in international waters.
Europe also ignores Iran’s transgressions because they are still more interested in trade benefits and avoiding conflict than curtailing Iran’s ambitions. Winston Churchill must have anticipated Europe’s reaction towards Iran when he wrote about Europe’s posture towards Hitler prior to WW II: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”
Trump’s sanctions worked and rationalizing they do not is disingenuous. Sanctions preclude Iran from easy access to the world’s financial systems. A new JCPOA merely provides Iran and its proxies with even more resources to attack our troops and allies while the ayatollahs and IRGC siphon off new funds from their own people’s humanitarian relief.
It is axiomatic that past behavior is an accurate predictor of future performance. Iran’s past behavior has been toxic and thinking otherwise about their future behavior is fantasy. A new deal only guarantees Iran’s nuclear ambitions, solidifies their regional hegemony and promotes terrorism. The same behavioral axiom applies to the U.S. Administration’s single-minded decision-making process. Though diplomacy may be tried to strengthen the JCPOA, I believe Joe Biden will eventually sign a new, disastrous Iran deal and ‘go to Abilene.’