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Biden had a chance to undo Trump's mistakes. He dropped the ball.

Biden had a chance to undo Trump's mistakes. He dropped the ball.

He squandered the chance to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, and instead doubled-down.

Analysis | Middle East

As President Biden’s first term draws to a close, his foreign policy record, particularly in the tumultuous Middle East, is marked by a series of major missteps.

His handling of the Gaza conflict, where he has failed to exert meaningful pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the war, has drawn widespread criticism. Additionally, his attempts to advance the Abraham Accords with Saudi Arabia have stagnated and failed to spur regional stability.

However, it is Biden’s approach to Iran that stands out as particularly self-defeating. Despite campaign promises to reinstate the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and reduce tensions with the longstanding U.S. adversary, his administration’s policies have left the U.S. grappling with an even more formidable Iranian challenge than at the start of his term.

Biden’s mishandling of Iran is central to his Middle Eastern policy failures. Had he chosen not to continue the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, characterized by unprecedented sanctions aimed at collapsing the Iranian economy, the Middle East might not be in its current state of turmoil. The ripple effects of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018, for which we now mark the 6-year anniversary, have been disastrous for U.S. strategic interests, leaving America and its regional allies in a markedly weaker position.

Trump and his hawkish advisers, including Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, believed that by leveraging all U.S. instruments of power, short of an all-out military confrontation and invasion of Iran, they could coerce the Iranian government into capitulation or even precipitate its collapse. They expected Iran to acquiesce to Pompeo’s sweeping demands, which essentially called for Iran to cave on all its foreign policy and national security strategies and its defense capabilities, or, ideally, that the Islamic Republic would simply crumble under the immense sanctions designed to blockade its economy and reduce its oil exports — the backbone of its economy — to zero.

However, Trump’s Iran policy was a resounding failure. By the time Trump left office, the Islamic Republic not only survived but had also significantly expanded its nuclear program. Despite the economic “shock” induced by sanctions, Iran succeeded in stabilizing its economy, albeit at a significant cost to the livelihoods of ordinary Iranians. Moreover, Iran retaliated against U.S. interests in the region, escalating the costs of America’s regime-change agenda.

These actions encompassed unprecedented missile strikes on Saudi Aramco in September 2019 and subsequent attacks on a U.S. military base in Iraq following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Iran and its allies also targeted U.S. interests in Iraq and disrupted shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Iran has sent an unambiguous message that U.S. attempts to isolate or destabilize it will not be without consequences. Washington's aspiration to establish a Middle East under its strategic domination, characterized by compliant authoritarian Arab regimes allied with an expansionist Israel, has proven elusive, largely due to Iran’s role as a spoiler. For instance, regional U.S. allies, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, transitioned from confrontation to engagement with Iran as Trump’s term concluded, driven by the costs of maximum pressure for their security.

This shift towards diplomacy and accommodation of Iran has gained momentum recently, drawing in additional regional states and figures, such as the leader of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, who displayed a starkly conciliatory stance towards Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a recent visit.

It is therefore baffling why Biden opted to continue Trump’s failed and self-defeating policies. Upon assuming office, Biden had a golden opportunity to swiftly reenter the JCPOA. In January 2021, a group of foreign policy and arms control experts recommended that the administration immediately reinstate U.S. compliance with the JCPOA through an executive order, akin to his actions with the Paris Climate Accords. Over 150 Democratic members of Congress also called on Biden to return to the deal without preconditions.

However, not unlike his predecessor, Biden proceeded with an approach characterized by overconfidence. During his 2020 campaign, Biden said that “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” He placed the burden on Iran to return to the deal first, despite the U.S. being the initial violator and bearing the responsibility of rebuilding trust.

In the crucial early months of his administration, Biden’s advisers conveyed the wrong messages to Tehran. Rather than signaling a readiness to rectify Washington's initial breach of the JCPOA, they implied that they viewed Trump’s maximum pressure as leverage they were reluctant to abandon, seeking further concessions from Iran for a return to the JCPOA.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said early on that Iran must first comply with the JCPOA before the U.S. would consider sanctions relief and pursue a “longer and stronger agreement” demanding additional concessions from Iran regarding regional issues and its missile program, a vital component of Iran’s defense. Similarly, Avril Haines, during her confirmation hearing to become Director of National Intelligence, remarked that rejoining the JCPOA was a distant prospect and that ballistic missile concerns would also need to be addressed.

These sentiments were echoed by Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, who emphasized the administration’s goal to extend and reinforce nuclear constraints on Iran and address other areas of concern, contingent on Iran’s compliance.

These statements sent the wrong signals to Tehran, reinforcing the Iranian perception that the U.S. is not a reliable partner and that striking a deal would not be worthwhile. The Iranians have consistently faced disappointment in negotiations with the U.S. going back decades, with former President Hassan Rouhani being the latest Iranian leader to broker a deal, only to encounter U.S. backtracking, which weakened Iran’s reformist-moderate and Western-oriented political factions.

Biden’s erroneous belief that Trump’s “maximum pressure” provided leverage — a notion that led to the expectation of Iran’s full compliance before the U.S. would honor its commitments — was a grave error. He missed the opportunity to negotiate with Rouhani government and secure a revival of the JCPOA while it was in power, instead aiming for additional Iranian concessions.

By the time negotiations commenced in April 2021, Israel also escalated efforts to sabotage them. An explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility coincided with the resumption of talks, prompting Ayatollah Khamenei to authorize an increase in uranium enrichment to 60%, nearing weapons-grade levels. Amidst these challenges, Biden pursued talks in Vienna, but the Iranians at this point sought more concessions themselves, including confirmation of sanctions removal before agreeing to dismantle their nuclear program, and guarantees that the U.S. would adhere to the deal.

By June 2021, Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif, proponents of détente with the West, were ousted from office, and Iranian conservative forces deeply distrustful of Washington assumed control of the presidency and major governing institutions. This led to 15 months of fruitless negotiations, with Iran’s lack of confidence in Washington’s long-term commitment to the agreement being the central issue.

Today, the landscape is starkly different from 2015. Iran has advanced its nuclear capabilities and reduced its economic dependency on oil, showcasing resilience against sanctions. The regional and global perception is that Iran has effectively managed to withstand U.S. pressures while advancing its strategic interests. Moreover, the prospect of Iran still viewing its nuclear program as a bargaining chip for accommodation by the West seems increasingly unlikely, as it has pivoted to deepening ties with Russia and China and faces rising domestic pressures for weaponizing its nuclear program.

Ultimately, the Biden administration’s decision to uphold the Trump-era maximum pressure campaign has proven ineffective in deterring Iran’s nuclear program and has further closed off avenues for diplomacy. This approach has perpetuated the belief that positive actions will not result in the removal of U.S. sanctions on adversarial nations.

The U.S. inconsistency in honoring agreements has fostered a harmful incentive structure for its adversaries. Skeptical of America’s commitment reliability, these adversaries choose to counter escalate, as evidenced by Iran’s actions in recent years and North Korea’s continued development of its missile capabilities. This situation highlights a significant weakness in U.S. foreign policy: internal political dynamics and strategic errors impede conflict prevention with countries like Iran.

The challenge ahead with Iran involves not only reaching a fairer agreement but also upholding the credibility and consistency necessary to ensure its longevity and effectiveness.

Below the Sky /

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