In selecting Joseph Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama acknowledged the importance of foreign affairs to this year's election. His Web site trumpeted Biden as "an expert on foreign policy" and a man "who has stared down dictators."
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is well versed in policy debates and carefully choreographed trips. But his record on the Islamic Republic of Iran -- perhaps the chief national security threat facing the next president -- suggests a persistent and dangerous judgment deficit. Biden's unyielding pursuit of "engagement" with Iran for more than a decade has made it easier for Tehran to pursue its nuclear program, while his partisan obsession with thwarting the Bush administration has led him to oppose tough sanctions against hard-liners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Eleven years ago, on Aug. 4, 1997, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proposed a dialogue of civilizations. The world applauded. Biden spearheaded efforts to seize the mantle of engagement. In September 1998, for example, Biden told the Czech foreign minister that cutting radio broadcasts into Iran might better encourage dialogue. Not long after President Bush declared Iran part of an "axis of evil," Biden headlined a March 13, 2002, dinner at the American Iranian Council, an organization underwritten at the time by a dozen oil companies and dedicated to ending sanctions on Iran. At the gala (at which Biden also endorsed regime change in Iraq), he spoke of the dichotomy between hard-liners and the reformers led by Khatami. In order to encourage reform, he invited "the elected representatives in Iran, to meet with . . . members of the United States Congress." Biden indicated that it would not be his first meeting with Iranian parliamentarians.
Fast forward a few years. Khatami left office in 2005 without implementing substantial reform. Between 2000 and 2005, in an effort to engage Iran, European Union trade with that country nearly tripled. Yet far from assuming a moderate posture, "the elected representatives in Iran" allocated nearly 70 percent of the hard currency windfall into military and nuclear programs. The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate affirmed the fruits of such investment when it found that Iran had pursued a nuclear weapons program until 2003. Although Biden's embrace of engagement coincided with Iran's nuclear warhead work, he acknowledged no error. He told reporters on Dec. 4 that Bush had "misrepresented" the intelligence in a drive to war and declared the same day, "You cannot trust this president."
Such poor judgment was not lost on Iranian leaders. Indeed, one of Khatami's top aides suggested that they came to count on it. At a June 14 panel with Iranian journalists and political advisers, former Khatami spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh explained, "We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of activities." He advised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to soften his defiance, noting that: "During our negotiations and so long as we were not subjected to sanctions, we could import technology. We should have negotiated for so long, and benefited from the atmosphere of negotiations to the extent we could import all the technology needed."
Bush has been a polarizing figure, but most senators realize that partisanship should never trump national security. In early 2007, evidence mounted that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was planning terrorist activities in Iraq. An August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate found that "Iran has been intensifying aspects of its lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants" and that "Explosively formed penetrator (EFP) attacks have risen dramatically." The next month, the Senate considered a bipartisan amendment to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, an important step to aid nonviolent efforts to deny it funds and financing. Biden was one of only 22 senators to vote against it. "I voted against the amendment to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization because I don't trust this administration," he said. Distrust of the U.S. president is the nature of politics, but skepticism about foreign dictators and their Brown Shirts is the backbone of judgment.
No matter. Biden's political games have made him Tehran's favorite senator. As Gen. David Petraeus struggled to unite Iraqis across the ethnic and sectarian divide, Iran's Press TV seized on Biden's plan for partitioning Iraq and featured his statements with the headline "US plans to disintegrate Iraq." Biden's attack-dog statements about U.S. policy failures emboldened Iranian hard-liners to defy diplomacy. In the Dec. 7, 2007, official sermon, Ayatollah Mohammad Kashani speaking on behalf of Iran's supreme leader, declared, "This Senator [Biden] correctly says Israel could not suppress Hizbullah in Lebanon, so how can the U.S. stand face-to-face with a nation of 70 million? This is the blessing of the Guardianship of the Jurists [the theocracy] . . . which plants such thoughts in the hearts of U.S. senators and forces them to make such confessions." The crowd met his statement with refrains of "Death to America."
Obama picked Biden for experience, but he might also have considered judgment. When it comes to Iran, Biden could stare down dictators; too bad he blinks.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.