If elected, Joe Biden will have an overwhelming agenda to repair the damage of the previous four years. Iran will be one of the few national security issues that rises to the top of his list.
The solution to the crisis is simple: come back into compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement and related United Nations Security Council resolutions, then work with our allies to build upon them, addressing through diplomacy our other disagreements with Iran.
Implementing this simple solution, however, will be difficult. Even with a new Biden approach, Iran may not agree, regional powers will try to sabotage him, domestic opponents aligned with these foreign governments will attack him, and the window for action will be short.
Unlike other Middle East dilemmas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Saudi war on Yemen, a solution was in place before Trump assumed the presidency. The Iran accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the strongest non-proliferation agreement in history. Worked out by seven nations plus the European Union and unanimously approved by the U.N. Security Council, this agreement shrank Iran’s nuclear program to a fraction of its previous size, froze it for a generation, and imposed the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated. It provides the basis for additional agreements that could address Iran’s other troubling actions and rebalanced U.S. regional relations.
Against the advice of his own cabinet, Trump ended U.S. compliance with the agreement, promising a “better deal” that he would achieve by a “maximum pressure” campaign and his superior negotiating skills. Now, at the end of his term, there is no deal, Iran’s commensurate violations of the agreement have increased its supply of enriched uranium (bringing it closer to a bomb); it has stepped up its activities to counter American forces in the region, and the brutish actions of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have increased America’s diplomatic isolation from its allies.
“The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign President Trump launched has failed either to obtain more concessions from Tehran, as he predicted, or to bring about regime change,” the editors of The Washington Post concluded this week, adding, “Trump’s abysmal failure of diplomacy has ostracized the U.S. – not Iran.”
Indeed, one allied official called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s effort to unilaterally reimpose multilateral sanctions against Iran “a television show.” European nations have pledged “to actively ignore” it.
Biden can repair much of the damage, but his window with be short, as Iran’s ability to respond to any initiatives will be curtailed by its mid-2021 elections that could bring a new hardline president to power. He must act quickly and firmly.
The most promising path is to adopt a “compliance-for-compliance” approach. He can restart U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear agreement by dropping the sanctions Trump and Pompeo imposed. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told an audience at the Council of Foreign Relations on September 21, “If others come back in compliance with the JCPOA, Iran is prepared to come back in compliance.” The European allies, who have worked assiduously to keep the deal alive, could assist. A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations recommends that European diplomats help Biden by embarking on “shuttle diplomacy” with Washington and Tehran immediately after the U.S. election. This could create needed political space for officials from the incoming Biden administration and the outgoing government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
This is roughly the path that Biden has said he favors. “I would rejoin the agreement,” he said, “and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it.”
It is the logical path. This will give Biden maximum leverage and Iranian politicians maximum incentives to bring Iran back into compliance with the deal. Iran can fairly quickly reverse the half-dozen steps it took in violation of the accord. In fact, Iran’s steps seem to have been designed to be reversible, i.e., reducing the amount of uranium enriched, exporting the accumulated stockpiles, ceasing operation of advanced centrifuges, etc.
But it will be politically difficult for Iranian officials to take these steps, particularly before a national election. Many in Iran will understandably question whether America can be taken at its word. Will the Americans break their promises just as they had done before? Other nations, including China and Russia, may have the same reluctance to play Lucy and the football with America again.
That is the key reason why Biden must resist the suggestion made my some of his advisers that he try to extract additional concessions from Iran before rejoining the agreement. That advice, though tempting, fundamentally misunderstands the situation.
It was the United States that violated the agreement first and it is the United States that is isolated now, not Iran. Rejoining the agreement is the only way to gain the leverage and diplomatic standing the United States enjoyed before Trump. Delay or Byzantine strategies would risk the entire agreement — one that the Europeans have kept on life-support but could expire at any moment.
If the United States does not rejoin quickly there may not be any agreement to rejoin.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the UAE will try to block Biden. Their allies in the United States, often paid by these governments or their supporters, will loudly condemn Biden. Republicans will ignore their failures and cry “appeasement.” They have already started to do this. Some who previously promised that massive sanctions would force Iran to comply or collapse are claiming that just a few more sanctions will do the trick. Others drop the sanctions pretext and openly urge a regime-change war with Iran, not talks.
“Washington doesn’t have the time or the political capital abroad to waste the first year of a new administration designing an approach to Iran that indulges the agenda of Gulf Arab states that relentlessly undermined the last Democratic president,” warns former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “Given the fact that the United States went back on its word, it would be a huge accomplishment just to return to the baseline of the JCPOA, which serves the core U.S. national security interests in Iran and could provide a foundation for future diplomatic initiatives.”
Biden’s advisers are quietly working right now on a transition plan for Iran. “I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too,” Biden said in a recent article published by CNN. The steps on this path will have to be carefully sequenced, communicated and negotiated. It helps that many of those advisers have done this before, both in secret talks and in public negotiations. They are some of the best in the business and head and shoulders above those who bungled this critical portfolio in the Trump administration.
The key will be to tune out the noise, put aside petty politics, and move quickly after Biden and Kamala Harris are sworn into office. Delay and half-steps could be fatal. In this case, fortune truly does favor the bold.