Transatlantic Take

What to Expect from the Biden Administration on Iran

6 min read
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We should expect the Biden administration’s Iran policy to focus initially on two objectives related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

We should expect the Biden administration’s Iran policy to focus initially on two objectives related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The first is to get Iran to return to compliance with the technical nuclear aspects of the agreement. The second is to commence additional negotiations on three areas beyond the JCPOA: Iran’s ballistic-missile development, its malign activities in the region, and extending timelines on some aspects of its civil nuclear activities. In addition to JCPOA-related policy, Biden will find himself needing to address a regional security architecture that appears dependent on scarce U.S. resources.

National Security Advisor-designate Jake Sullivan indicated last month that “If Iran is prepared to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal…then the United States is prepared to return to compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal…and then would work intensively on follow on agreements to address a range of different issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, including timelines, and including other questions.” Biden reiterated recently that his overall priority is Iran’s nuclear issues, which he said was “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region.”

It may appear that some aspects of Biden’s Iran policy share similar objectives to those of the Trump administration, particularly on additional agreements. But, in fact, his administration’s approach to achieving its objectives on Iran will differ in several respects.

First, Biden is proposing for the United States to re-enter the JCPOA if Iran reverses its nuclear activities begun in 2019 and demonstrates a commitment to negotiate on other issues beyond the agreement. While some commentators view this “commitment-for-commitment” approach as unrealistic, Iran has consistent indicated that its activities are reversible—perhaps a signal that these actions were intended to threaten but not make progress in its nuclear program. Biden’s approach would differ from that of the Trump administration, which wanted to replace the hard-negotiated JCPOA with a “new and better deal” that would encompass the entirety of Iran’s nuclear, missile, and regional activities.

The Biden administration will likely pursue cooperation with European powers on agreements regarding Iran’s missile and regional activities

Second, the Biden administration will likely pursue cooperation with European powers on agreements regarding Iran’s missile and regional activities in a manner more serious than the Trump administration did. The E3—Britain, France, and Germany—initially pursued intense negotiations with the Trump administration to hammer out a consensus and a way forward on supplemental agreements. But as they were nearing consensus on some of these, Trump announced in May 2018 the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA without consulting or forewarning U.S. allies. The Biden administration should dust off these agreements and refine them as needed. The negotiations on many of these had reached the level of political directors in the respective foreign ministries and may be a starting point.

Finally, in the past four years, Iran has been the central—at times it seems the only—issue in the United States’ relationship with its Gulf partners and Israel. The Biden administration is likely to conduct a more balanced foreign policy with these regional partners that leaves Iran as just one issue among others, including human rights and countering China’s rise in the region. These partners accepted the Trump administration’s blank checks with no strings attached and at the same time undertook actions at odds with U.S. interests and values—like Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ disastrous war in Yemen, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s alleged ordering of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of Chinese investment. While it would still be a priority to ensure the Gulf countries and Israel can defend themselves against Iran, which possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the region, the Biden administration will likely be prepared to conduct a review of what the United States gained vis-à-vis Gulf partners in the past four years and to gradually begin to “right-size” foreign policy in the region.

What Stands in the Way 

Biden faces domestic and external pressures that will have an impact on whether or not his Iran policy succeeds.

He will need to convince Congress—virtually all Republicans and some skeptical influential Democrats, like Senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez—that rejoining JCPOA, along with Iran’s return to compliance, is a necessary first step. Convincing lawmakers, who will potentially want a role in validating (even symbolically) additional agreements, could be key to legitimizing any deal the administration makes with Tehran. 

Biden will need to ensure that the concerns of the United States’ regional partners, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are addressed in whatever supplemental agreements his administration and European governments devise. This includes potentially having Gulf countries take lead on concluding a follow-on agreement with Iran on its regional activities, as Ariane Tabatabai and I proposed in September. However, this is not a zero-sum game: if regional partners do not contribute to finding solutions in good faith, the Biden administration will have to be prepared to work solely with the E3 and EU—an action that may raise ire (though probably mostly rhetorical) from Congress, regional leaders, Russia, and China.

In the final weeks of the Trump presidency there is also the risk of a “black swan” (that is, a low probability, high impact event), even bigger than Israel’s alleged assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, that could lead to military escalation between the United States and Iran before Biden is inaugurated. Trump has reportedly urged his subordinates to continue the policy of maximum pressure, but not to the point of “starting World War III” with Iran. But, for example, if U.S. servicemembers on bases in Iraq were to be killed by militia-launched Iranian rockets, there is little doubt that Trump would order a military strike on Iranian interests there. Depending on the severity of such an attack on U.S. interests, he may even consider ordering a strike on Iranian territory as he did in 2019 after the shooting down of a U.S. drone before reversing his order. More escalation would follow and would obviously reduce any political or diplomatic room for maneuver in Washington and Tehran.

European governments need to be prepared to take the lead on reaching supplemental agreements with Iran over its missile and regional activities—potentially in close coordination with Gulf countries and Israel. In order for Iran not to exploit potential differences between them, the E3 and the United States will need to consider compromises on objectives in the agreements to ensure perfect does not become the enemy of good. It would be in the interest of global security to exact at least some concessions from Iran as a confidence-building measure, even if no party gets everything they want initially.