Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Isolated from reality on Iran

Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden misspoke. Normally, this would not be news. But unlike using obscene language, or confusing which Supreme Court Justice administered his oath of office, or talking about the president’s "big stick," this time it matters. The vice president said: "When we took office, let me remind you, there was ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden misspoke. Normally, this would not be news. But unlike using obscene language, or confusing which Supreme Court Justice administered his oath of office, or talking about the president's "big stick," this time it matters.

The vice president said:

"When we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe."

Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden misspoke. Normally, this would not be news. But unlike using obscene language, or confusing which Supreme Court Justice administered his oath of office, or talking about the president’s "big stick," this time it matters.

The vice president said:

"When we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe."

Beyond the obvious point that "we" were not the problem, that Iran’s longstanding and repeated violations of its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, multiple IAEA Board of Governors Resolutions, and multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions were and are the problem, the vice president ignores history and distorts the present.

The United States was not isolated on Iran when the Obama administration took office. U.S. diplomacy had succeeded in passing, with Russian, Chinese, and European support, four United Nations Security Council Resolutions from 2006-2008, tightening the web of sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the Bush administration began innovative use of financial sanctions in cooperation with U.S. allies — a policy the Obama administration has succeeded in continuing and expanding. Russia and China have always favored an incremental approach, so it is to be expected that over time, sanctions efforts would grow more forceful and the Obama administration has succeeded in making them so.

More disturbing is the isolation from reality implied by the vice president’s remarks. Touting the success of the administration’s Iran policy, he went on to say, "today it is starkly, starkly different." Well, yes, the situation is starkly different. In 2009, Iran had about 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium; today, its production capacity is more than double that. Iran’s declared stocks of low enriched uranium are five times what they they were in 2009. Two years ago, Iran began enriching to the much higher level of 20 percent, and can do so in a new, deep, underground facility near Qom.

Despite sanctions, Iran’s nuclear program is expanding and accelerating. Iran is to blame for that, not the United States, but whatever can be said for the administration’s policy on Iran, it is not halting the nuclear program.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.