Joe Biden, Iran’s nuclear future and the path to progress

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden stressed the importance of working to “lower the temperature” in the United States. What he was referring to, of course, was bringing Americans together to heal from the division and chaos wrought largely by President Donald Trump and made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. At his inauguration, President Biden echoed candidate Biden, once again calling on his fellow Americans to “lower the temperature” and step back from the “red against blue, urban vs. rural, and conservative vs. liberal” mindset.

On the international scene, Biden seemed to be taking a chapter from his domestic playbook, consistently calling for reduced tensions with Iran after four years of Donald Trump-fueled agitation. Yet, he ordered airstrikes in Syria on two Iranian-backed militias on February 25. The strikes, characterized as narrow in scope, were said to have been prompted by recent rocket attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and ongoing threats. Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the strikes and reiterated its animus toward the presence of U.S. forces in the region and its disdain for Israel. 

However, airstrikes in response to Iranian-supported rocket attacks on U.S. troops are in no way uncommon. Thus, these recent airstrikes should not be viewed as developments that will seismically alter the United States’ relationship with Iran or significantly damage the odds of a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — that Trump removed the United States from in 2018. Even Iran’s post-airstrike rejection of a European Union proposal for direct U.S.-Iranian discussions about the JCPOA’s future is consistent with what the nation’s leaders have stated in recent months regarding the prospects for revitalizing the nuclear deal.

Independent of the Syrian airstrikes, the Iranian government’s recent rhetoric suggests that lowering the temperature with the United States after President Trump’s scorched-earth approach to the countries’ bilateral relations will be no small undertaking for Biden and his administration. Still, there is a viable path for Biden to build bridges with Iran by carving out a new and improved status quo rather than by simply returning to the one that existed prior to Trump. Lowering the temperature with Iran does not mean Biden should make significant concessions. Rather it means pursuing a policy that not only seeks to undo much of the damage the Trump administration caused by actively antagonizing the Iranian regime, but also works to liberalize Iran by making inroads among its populace. Counterintuitive as it may seem, a new status quo can only be achieved if the old one which existed under Obama is revisited first. This should be done in the following manner: rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and begin cutting overly punitive economic sanctions as soon as possible; peacefully promote liberal democracy in the country; and ultimately craft a new and improved nuclear deal.

For Biden to have any hope of reducing the Iranian nuclear threat, easing tensions with Tehran, and helping the Iranian people, he must first rejoin the JCPOA. The JCPOA placed temporary constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief for the country. The deal was agreed upon in 2015 between Iran, the five permanent United Nations Security Council Members (China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom), Germany, and the European Union. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 thinking he could renegotiate it in the United States’ favor by applying “maximum pressure” to the Middle Eastern power using severe economic sanctions. This approach clearly backfired. Per the stipulations of the deal, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile was to remain no larger than 300 kilograms and was to be kept at an enrichment level of 3.67% or less until 2031. These limitations were intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear warheads while still allowing the country to benefit from nuclear energy. However, Iran has exceeded both of these limits since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. In November 2020, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported the country’s enriched uranium stockpile had reached 2,442.9 kg, enough to create two nuclear bombs. Moreover, Iran has already enriched its uranium to a level of 4.5% and has stated it plans to enrich its uranium to 20%, the necessary level to build a nuclear weapon. 

Despite these concerning developments, Iran has expressed interest in returning to the deal. In December 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asserted that Iran would rejoin the JCPOA “within one hour” of a U.S. return. Two days later this comment was echoed by Iran’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he stated that “Iran must not delay even one hour” to rejoin the nuclear deal if doing so would lift U.S. sanctions. These words provide the Biden administration with a direct path to place constraints on Iran’s nuclear program once again. For its part, the Biden administration repeatedly stated that Iran must return to full compliance with the deal’s guidelines before the United States rejoins the deal. 

However, Ayatollah Khamenei has since made it clear that it is the “final and irreversible” decision of the Iranian government that it will only rejoin the JCPOA if the United States does so first. In other words, if Biden hopes to get anywhere with Iran, he must make his initial position more flexible. However, Biden must make it clear that until the five U.S. nationals currently held hostage in Iran are released, no progress can be made.

Biden would undoubtedly be criticized by conservatives and foreign policy hawks as being weak for rejoining the Iran nuclear deal while Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles remain well above the JCPOA’s limits. However, if one takes a closer look at the facts, it becomes clear that Biden spearheading a return to the nuclear deal would signal a return of the United States’ once-vaunted normative power status. It is important to remember that the United States, not Iran, was the country that walked away from the JCPOA first. It was only after the United States abandoned the deal and placed harsh economic sanctions on Iran that the Islamic republic began to exceed the deal’s enriched uranium restrictions. 

Hence, Biden taking the first step on the JCPOA would begin to restore Iran’s trust in the United States. Moreover, this is the most straightforward path to achieving the ultimate priority: reducing the likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear power. In late January, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed that although his country would instantly rejoin the JCPOA if the United States rejoined now, the United States does not have “unlimited” time to act. Adding to the urgency, Iran recently began restricting UN inspections of its nuclear facilities in response to European nations refusing to offer Iran relief from U.S. economic sanctions. Even more concerning, shortly after taking office U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that Iran may be only months away from developing enough “fissile material for a nuclear bomb.” 

The JCPOA is imperfect, no doubt, but the most important thing right now is ensuring that Iran does not become a nuclear power in the near future. The time to act on this is narrow, but there will be plenty of time for Biden to negotiate alterations to the deal or craft an entirely new deal later in his term if he can get this done first. 

Aside from putting the brakes on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, returning to the JCPOA would provide the citizens of Iran with much-needed sanctions relief that could help nudge the country ever so slightly toward liberal democracy. After withdrawing from the nuclear deal in 2018, the Trump administration reinstated all sanctions on Tehran that had been lifted after the implementation of the JCPOA under the Obama administration. The Trump administration hoped that its campaign of maximum pressure would weaken the Iranian regime and ultimately force it to acquiesce to stiffer U.S. demands. In reality, these harsh sanctions neither led to Iranian concessions nor to a weakening of the Iranian regime’s ability to suppress its own citizens. Conversely, the sanctions sent Iran into a deep recession, which has damaged millions of ordinary Iranians’ living conditions. Iran’s GDP grew by 12.5% in 2016 and 3.7% in 2017, the two years in which the JCPOA was in effect. Yet following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, Iran’s GDP contracted by 5.4% in 2018 and 7.6% in 2019. This recession has drastically reduced the purchasing power of the Iranian people, sending millions into dire economic straits. 

Even more detrimental, despite including exemptions for humanitarian imports, U.S. sanctions have extensively damaged the state of human security in Iran. Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure includes “secondary sanctions” on non-U.S. parties that engage in monetary or business transactions with Iran, meaning the country has been severed from much of the global economy. Thus, many international financial institutions — fearful of being punished by the United States — have avoided transactions with Iran, even for those protected by humanitarian exemptions. This has resulted in domestic shortages of essential medicine and medical equipment at a time when Iranians can least afford them. Beyond this, the sanctions have led to large demonstrations by civilians who blame the Iranian government rather than the United States for their economic woes. Though this may sound like a positive on its face, the Iranian government has responded brutally with violent crackdowns and a further curtailing of the already limited political and civil rights of the Iranian people.

Challenges to the regime’s authority have led to hundreds of civilians being massacred and critics of the regime being jailed and executed. It is undeniably encouraging to see that the Iranian people have begun to turn more firmly against their autocratic overlords, but the Iranian government’s military backing makes it highly unlikely that any popular uprising will overthrow the regime. If recent events are prologue, dissent will only lead to further entrenchment of the regime and increased human rights violations. Hence, after rejoining the JCPOA, the United States must lift the sanctions against Iran reinstated under Trump to best engage the Iranian people and protect their well-being. Of course, Iran would have to reciprocate by bringing its nuclear program back within the JCPOA’s limits.

After taking these steps to resurrect the Obama-era status quo with Iran, Biden must build on the positive momentum to carve out a new status quo defined by diplomatic efforts to liberalize Iran. Doing so would not only help refurbish the United States’ damaged “soft power” capabilities, but also prevent further destabilization of the Middle East. This aspect of Biden’s Iran challenge is far more open-ended than simply rejoining the JCPOA or eliminating highly punitive sanctions. In a January article, New York Times “Global Opinions” writer Jason Rezaian makes a number of suggestions for how the Biden administration could pursue this. 

For one, he argues that Biden should revive cultural exchanges with Iran. Biden could do this by making it easier for Iranians to secure student visas, thereby boosting Iranian enrollment at American universities and building lasting ties to the Iranian populace. Moreover, Rezaian posits that Biden should promote trade with Iran by encouraging small businesses in the country to buy from American companies. Additionally, Rezaian notes that Iran is facing, among other environmental crises, a rapidly dwindling water supply. Thus, the Biden administration could foster goodwill toward the United States among Iranians by helping Iran adequately address the looming environmental catastrophes its people face. This could consist of assisting Tehran in its water desalination efforts or helping the government better educate the Iranian public on natural resource management. Additionally, Rezaian contends Biden should aim to make human rights concerns central to all negotiations with Iran. Carrying out these steps would not only “strengthen [Iranian] civil society and its institutions” but also directly benefit U.S. security interests by ensuring the balance of power in the Middle East is not threatened by a fragile Iran. Moreover, it could ultimately lead to the Iran nuclear deal being improved or replaced with an agreement more beneficial to the United States.

Neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat, boosting Iranians’ quality of life, and peacefully building support for liberal democracy among the Iranian people without alienating the regime are difficult tasks to be sure. Yet if the Biden administration leads a return to the JCPOA, cuts the harshest economic sanctions against Iran, and takes a humanitarian-oriented approach to its Iran policy, then building a healthy relationship with the Middle Eastern power will be possible. Moreover, such a relationship would signal to the world an unmistakable return of the United States’ indispensable commitment to the liberal international order and would help foster peace and prosperity in a region of vital interest to the United States and its allies. Much like American domestic politics, the United States’ relationship with Iran is at a crossroads. 

Though this precarious relationship poses tremendous difficulty for Biden’s foreign policy agenda, it also offers the potential for transformative change. The crucial variable is whether Biden will seize this opportunity before it is too late.

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