The Iran Plan
What would it take for Biden to make some sort of deal with Tehran?
The Nation asked of President Joe Biden, "Is America back?" If it is, what is its signature accomplishment, the marker that Pax Americana or something similar worthy of Latin, is back?
Certainly nothing here at home. Gas flutters at record levels, as much as $5 a gallon in places with all the side effects of higher grocery prices and supply chain missteps. Employment-wise, jobs of some sort are there but lack in quality and salary such that many people find unemployment a better deal than underemployment. Crime and gun violence stalks many Americans.
Abroad, Biden stretched NATO to its threads by threatening Ukrainian membership in the alliance, and ignoring objections to the alliance’s expansion across Russia’s political spectrum, contributing to an invasion few thought would happen and no one in the West outside of perhaps Washington wanted. The results are increasingly divided "allies" and massive expenses in arms and lives without much of a defined endgame.
That foreign policy disaster-in-progress stands next to Biden's other signature foreign policy action: withdrawal from Afghanistan in a haphazard way such that it displayed America's confusion and fugue state more than its power. The world outside the Beltway seems well aware that the outcome of more than twenty years of war and occupation is to return the country to its pre-September 11 state of medieval feudalism even if we chose not to talk much about it here at home.
That's not much to run on for the second term Biden all but announced his candidacy for in his State of the Union address. Hopes to make progress here at home are dependent mostly on factors outside of America's control, to include the price of oil (thanks to a Saudi Arabia who brushed back Biden) and any return of Covid.
Biden must—and might just be able to—find a way to make peace with Iran, however, and score a major foreign policy victory, the kind of typical second term action he could pack into the end of his first term. The world might just forgive some sins (the return of U.S. forces to Somalia and the endless war in Yemen the U.S. supports, for example) if it sees somnolent American diplomacy dragged out of the closet after six years and put back to use. America would indeed be back.
The obstacles to some sort of agreement with Iran are formidable. Iran's own foreign policy goals are nearly as mixed up as America's, with the country's leaders pursuing a complex and often contradictory set of objectives. From supporting armed groups in the Middle East to engaging in negotiations with the West, Iran's approach to foreign affairs has been shaped by a variety of factors, including its history, ideology, and geopolitical interests. To achieve any sort of agreement, Biden would have to navigate all of the above.
One of the most notable aspects of Iran's foreign policy is its support for armed groups in the region. Iran has long been accused of backing militant and terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as part of its efforts to project power and influence beyond its borders. This has led to increased tensions with Iran's neighbors, particularly Israel, and has fueled concerns about the country's intentions in the region. Iran controls Iraq (another American foreign policy blunder, about half of which was under Biden's vice-watch) and complicates Syria and Yemen. But the complexity of the problem just adds to the value of a solution if it can be found.
Another key aspect of Iran's foreign policy is its relationship with the West, a fork in the road on which Biden has the most influence. The country has been under international sanctions for decades, with the United States and its allies seeking to pressure Iran to limit its nuclear program and curb its support for armed groups (how has that sanctions regime been working out?). After negotiations with the West during the end state Obama administration, including the 2015 nuclear deal, lifted some of the sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, the deal went south under Trump, the United States reimposed most sanctions, and Iran responded by resuming some of its nuclear activities, leading to fears of a wider conflict.
Iran's foreign policy is shaped by its self-understanding that it is a major player in the Middle East, something the U.S. has been very slow to acknowledge. The country has long sought to use its military, economic, and political leverage to advance its interests in the region, most notably by securing a client state in Iraq. This has led to increased tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which view Iran as a major threat. But wouldn't it be a nice gesture to the Saudis, who raised oil prices and refuse to crank up production to match that lost in the Ukraine war, to see the U.S. sit down with one of its adversaries?
So what would it take for Biden to make some sort of deal with Iran?
Sanctions relief: Iran would seek relief from the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country, while the U.S. would want to ensure that any sanctions relief is conditional and proportional to Iran's compliance with the terms of the deal. This is tricky business, but was more or less done in 2015 and is the actual stuff of diplomacy. Biden would have to make clear Iran can choose to be a threshold nuclear power and suffer indefinitely for it or rejoin the global system and profit from it.
Nuclear restrictions: Both sides would need to agree on the extent to which Iran's nuclear program should be restricted and monitored, including limitations on uranium enrichment and the size of its nuclear stockpile. Again, this was mostly taken care of in 2015. Biden would need to fend off Israel entreaties to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities rather than trust Tehran to disarm them. Iran at the negotiation table would likely demand some sort of pullback of Israeli nukes from the Gulf.
Verification mechanisms: Both sides would need to agree on the mechanisms for verifying compliance with the terms of the deal, including regular inspections and monitoring. A clear timeline for lifting sanctions and implementing restrictions on Iran's nuclear program is important to avoid stalling the agreement.
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Regional involvement: As the situation in the Middle East is complex, regional actors, such as the Gulf countries, would need to be involved in the negotiations and have their concerns addressed. This is likely the most difficult part of the deal, bringing the regional actors into line, something a weakened America may not have the diplomatic juice to make happen. Yemen however is a possible bargaining chip in several directions, and lessening the nuclear threat overall in the Gulf remains a goal worth pursuing.
The outcome of any potential negotiations will depend on a number of factors, including Iran's willingness to engage in constructive talks, the level of sanctions relief and other incentives the U.S. is willing to provide, and the international community's support (particularly a reluctant Saudi Arabia and an even more reluctant Israel) for the negotiations.
The U.S. and Iran have had a complicated relationship. There have been significant obstacles to reaching a nuclear agreement in the past. However, Biden has expressed a willingness to re-engage with Iran and revive the 2015 nuclear deal. He has also indicated that his administration is open to diplomatic efforts to address concerns about Iran's nuclear program and other issues. For a president looking to take big issue success into the next election, it just might be worth a chance.