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As the nuclear negotiations between the world powers and Iran approach a denouement, the Biden administration is turning up the heat on … Donald Trump!? Facing a Republican clamor against reviving the 2015 deal, the White House is keen to reframe the discussion in Washington about the talks in Vienna by blaming the previous president for having ill-advisedly pulled out of the agreement.

Twice last week, State Department and White House spokespeople deflected journalists’ questions about the negotiations to whale on Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Jen Psaki, the administration’s press secretary, portrayed it as the root of all the Islamic Republic’s malign activities: “None of the things we’re looking at now — Iran’s increased capability and capacity, the aggressive actions that they have taken through proxy wars around the world — would be happening if the former president had not recklessly pulled out of the nuclear deal with no thought as to what might come next.”

As a Beltway political tactic, this is shrewd: It gives President Joe Biden a ready-made excuse for the two likeliest outcomes of the talks. If the administration makes significant concessions in order to revive the JCPOA — such as agreeing to lift some economic sanctions before Iran has returned to full compliance with its terms — then the White House can claim Trump’s hasty pullout left it with no good options. If, as seems more likely, the talks fail and the Islamic Republic continues to enrich uranium toward weapons-grade levels, then it was Trump’s fault for removing the restraints imposed by the original deal.

But as a foreign policy strategy, it is too clever by half: It gives the Iranians a ready-made excuse — Donald Trump — for their increasingly dangerous breaches of the JCPOA and their aggressive behavior in the Middle East. To American allies in the region, it signals that the administration has a blinkered view of the threat they face from Tehran.

There is certainly an argument that the regime might not have ratcheted up its nuclear program — not openly, anyway — had the 2015 deal still been in force. But as Israel and the Arab states of the Levant and the Persian Gulf know from painful experience, the Iranian threat long predates Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The proxy wars referenced by Psaki have been raging since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, when the new theocratic regime in Tehran began to support armed groups across the Middle East. Over the next three decades, it built a vast network of proxies and partners, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to the Houthis in Yemen and several militias in Iraq. These were used as fifth columns to foment conflict within Arab societies as well as to menace Israel.

Even before the JCPOA was signed, a Houthi-instigated civil war in Yemen had drawn in a Saudi-led Arab coalition, Hezbollah and Iranian troops were slaughtering Syrian civilians to prop up the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Assad, Hamas was at daggers permanently drawn with Israel and Iran’s proxies in Iraq had killed hundreds of American troops.

At home, meanwhile, the regime in Tehran was developing ballistic-missile technology as well as bulking up its military and paramilitary forces.

The 2015 agreement pursued by the administration of President Barack Obama was confined to one element of the Iranian threat: a nuclear program that Tehran claimed was entirely peaceful. The deal was meant to prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons for a couple of decades, in exchange for a lifting of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the U.S. But it didn’t require Iran to renounce its destabilizing activities.

Critics of the deal worried that an unshackled Islamic Republic would grow more aggressive and assertive. They were right: In the two years that the JCPOA was in effect, Iran ramped up military spending at home, especially on its missile program, and increased support for its proxies.

Trump’s critics are right to point out that his reckless abrogation of the deal didn’t end these activities, but the reimposition of sanctions certainly curtailed Iran’s access to money and munitions. It isn’t hard to imagine how much more harm Hezbollah or the Houthis would have done, or be capable of doing, if they had more cash and advanced weaponry from Tehran.

In any event, it is absurd to suggest that Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA increased Iran’s aggression, much less caused it. While the Biden administration’s new messaging might work in Washington, it won’t wash in the Middle East.

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Bobby Ghosh writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.


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