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Biden’s First Steps with Iran

The Trump administration's Iran policy has been reckless and counterproductive. Biden should seek a complete turnaround, and fast.

With just weeks left in power, the Trump administration is making a final push in its failed and dangerous maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The idea is to work with Israel to hit Iran with “as many sanctions as possible” before Inauguration Day, an Israeli official told Axios, and thus to obstruct Joe Biden’s anticipated move to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

It’s not obvious these new sanctions will have any such effect. Tehran has held out on the Trump team for four years—a span of 9 weeks is nothing at that scale. So even with these new sanctions in place, Biden can and should chart a new course forward in Iran policy, rejecting this demonstrably dangerous pressure campaign and recentering productive diplomacy in the U.S.-Iran relationship.

Biden’s first step is to formally commit to rejoining the Iran deal. He would ideally do this rapidly, announcing his intent to resume participation within his first week or two in office and outlining a timeline of a few months at most. Biden promised on the campaign trail to re-enter the deal if Iran returns to full compliance, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already expressed willingness to work with the United States after the presidential transition is complete. With Biden’s projected win, “an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms,” Rouhani was quoted as saying in state-run media recently.

Comments from an Iranian foreign ministry representative the same day made clear Tehran expects any new stage in U.S.-Iran relations to begin with a return to JCPOA in its original form—not a modified version—as well as relief from the harsh sanctions the Trump administration imposed. Biden would be wise to reverse Trump-era sanctions that have incentivized Tehran’s regional troublemaking, and added considerably to the misery of ordinary Iranians.

This would amount to making good on Biden’s pledge to “make sure U.S. sanctions do not hinder Iran’s fight against COVID-19.” Though the Trump administration has claimed it is tailoring sanctions to avoid impeding humanitarian relief and medical work in Iran, this is not true.

As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself admitted before the coronavirus pandemic began, “things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the US sanctions]”—and the revolution he hoped that suffering would inspire shows no sign of materializing, nor is it likely to do so. Instead, U.S. sanctions on Iranian financial institutions have curtailed Iranian imports of medical necessities, exacerbating the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. Repealing the sanctions doing the most widespread harm to Iranian civilians, which may well include most or all of the new sanctions the Trump administration is rushing into use right now, would reassure Tehran that Washington is serious about its new direction.

This sanctions reversal should happen immediately, regardless of the status of the nuclear deal. Backing off some sanctions will be necessary to rejoin the deal anyway, and by lowering tensions, it will lessen the likelihood of stumbling into war while U.S.-Iran relations are rejiggered. That’s valuable for U.S. security, because the relative quiet of the relationship since we narrowly avoided open war in January should not be mistaken for a secure stasis. Continuing in this present mode of antagonism is reckless at best. We still need meaningful de-escalation, and undoing sanctions that both fail in their policy agenda and cause indefensible harm to people already suffering domestic oppression is the obvious play.

After sanctions are wound down and the JCPOA rejoined, the Biden administration would finally be positioned to pursue new goals with Iran by building upon this reconstructed diplomatic footing. This might include negotiating to extend the original deal’s sunset clauses; addressing Iran’s other weapons development (e.g. ballistic missiles) and regional meddling; or even seeking improvement in Iran’s domestic human rights policies.

Exacting such concessions might be feasible for Washington once U.S. negotiating options are no longer self-sabotaged by maximum pressure. American diplomats should be able to go into talks with real leeway to offer carrots as well as sticks and accept the slow, gradual shifts diplomacy often entails. If they can, we could see the unrealistic, absolutist stance of maximum pressure rendered null.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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