President-elect Biden will enter office not just with the enormous domestic challenges of the pandemic and its associated economic impacts but also with a string of foreign policy challenges to address. Biden is the best-placed incoming President to move out smartly on foreign and national security policy issues since President George H.W. Bush. Biden has a wealth of experience from both the Senate and his time as Vice President as well as what is likely to be a tremendously experienced and cohesive senior foreign policy team. Iran may be one of the first issues on his plate. The context for new policies on Iran may yet still change if outgoing President Donald Trump chooses to withdraw U.S. forces entirely from any mix of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria prior to his departing the Oval Office on January 20, 2021.
Biden’s foreign policy toward Iran will be centered within a multilateral approach of close coordination with U.S. allies. Biden has noted in both campaign stump speeches and articles that diplomacy, with the United States at the head of the table, will be the primary vehicle through which he will seek to protect American interests. In the case of Iran, Biden has indicated his willingness to return to some version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or nuclear deal) if Iran comes into compliance with its provisions. Shortly after election day, Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, called on a Biden administration to “compensate for past mistakes” and to return to the agreement. Herein lies the rub – the situation both within Iran and internationally has changed significantly since 2015 when the agreement was signed and especially since the Trump administration pulled out.
Based on Rouhani’s statements, Iran wants some form of diplomatic/economic “payment” for coming back into some form of compliance with the JCPOA. This means a set of negotiations, involving interim steps, to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA – likely a modified one – alongside some sort of side payments and/or guarantees that Iran can reap some short-term economic benefits for its actions. This will be difficult for a Biden administration to do given both Iran’s track record in the region and a robust bipartisan antipathy to Iran in the U.S. Congress.
Full sanctions relief that requires Congressional approval would almost certainly not be in the cards. Still, the Biden administration has some flexibility with regard to sanctions that have been imposed using executive authorities since the Trump administration’s withdrawal. Indeed, much of U.S. sanctions legislation has provisions for the executive to create exceptions. These exceptions or waivers or redesignation of terrorist entities or individuals by the Treasury department may serve as bargaining chips in a negotiation designed to move back towards something like the JCPOA. The Biden administration could also allow one-time or limited economic deals by allies or others (e.g., China and Russia). But all of this will take time.
Biden has also indicated that he wants to strengthen and extend the agreement. Here he will face a steeper climb as Tehran has seen that long-term commitments on the part of the United States are almost impossible in the highly partisan sphere of U.S. politics. In addition, Tehran believes that it never reaped the benefits promised in the original agreement, so it is very unlikely to agree on adding restrictions to, for instance, its missile force.
Finally, none of the new negotiations will happen in a vacuum. Incoming President Biden has written that he will “more effectively push back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.” This means ongoing U.S. military deployments in the region, intelligence operations, and cooperation with Gulf Arab allies to counter Iran’s influence. Within Iran, there are elements – including the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps – who may attempt to sabotage discussions with the “Great Satan.” The chances for clashes, purposeful or inadvertent, therefore remain.