How Biden Can Help Prevent War on Iran—Right Now
Law and precedent bar the new administration from diplomacy before Inauguration Day. But that doesn’t mean its hands are tied.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Following last week’s Capitol Hill insurrection, the effort to evict President Donald Trump from the White House has started up again in earnest. Apart from the threat that he’ll stoke more violence at home, one of the most compelling reasons to remove him before Inauguration Day is the fear that, if left in charge, he’ll use his time left to launch a last-minute strike on Iran.
This idea isn’t far-fetched. The Trump administration—what’s left of it—remains stocked with ultra-Iran hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump himself has publicly flirted with the idea of attacking Iran, and, after losing the election, reportedly asked aides about options for striking its nuclear facilities. Since November, the United States has sent B-52s to buzz the Iranian coast four times. Washington is thought to have participated in the Nov. 27 assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist just two months before the anniversary of the U.S. killing of Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian general. And in a bizarre episode on Jan. 3, Trump personally sent the USS Nimitz—an aircraft carrier that acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller ordered home four days earlier—steaming back to the Middle East.
None of this means that Trump will definitely attack Iran in the eight days he has left as president. One can’t even calculate the odds. But that very uncertainty makes it understandable why leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are taking the possibility seriously. If there were ever any doubts about Trump’s judgment or his indifference to America’s interests, his encouragement of an armed uprising in Washington, D.C., last week killed them off.
No wonder, then, that Iran is already acting to protect itself through a measure of bluster and military maneuvers. On Jan. 7, the day after the riot in Washington, it staged a major naval drill involving more than 700 boats. This followed a large exercise involving hundreds of unmanned aircraft, including so-called suicide drones designed to fly explosives directly into a target. And on Dec. 31, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that “Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”
Iran will do everything it can to avoid a shooting war with the United States, which it could only lose. The country’s leaders know the risks and have been careful to avoid giving Trump a pretext for a strike. (The one big exception is Tehran’s recent decision to resume uranium enrichment up to 20 percent, in violation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Since it still falls far below the enrichment threshold needed to build a bomb, however, Iran’s leaders seem to be gambling that it won’t precipitate a military response.) But the mere fact that Iran now thinks that the United States might attack it at any minute is extremely dangerous, since it raises the risk that either country could misjudge the other and raise the stakes—forcing its opponent to reciprocate—or act in what it thinks is self-defense, triggering an all-out conflagration.
All of which raises a critical question: What can the incoming Biden administration do right now to help the United States avoid such a war?
Figuring out the answer is surprisingly difficult. Until they actually take office, President-elect Joe Biden and his team are barred by precedent and law from talking to Iran or any other foreign government. So the direct approach is out. That makes good sense as a general principle—just as the United States can have only one government at a time, it can have only one foreign policy. But the norm makes action difficult in a case like this, even if that action might save lives. Still, the Biden team has shown admirable restraint—due, no doubt, to the sour memories of the way Trump’s soon-to-be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn flouted the rule by negotiating with Russia’s ambassador shortly after the 2016 election. (Flynn was ultimately convicted of lying to the FBI about his actions but was then pardoned by Trump.)
Does this mean that Biden’s only options are to either violate the rules or sit on his hands and run the risk that Trump will drag the country into a bloody quagmire the new administration would then have to resolve?
Not quite; Biden and his aides can, and should, do two things immediately to help stave off a conflict. First, members of the Defense Department transition team, including the incoming secretary, Lloyd Austin, should use their meetings with sitting officials—especially those in uniform—to warn them off any actions that might trigger a showdown. Biden officials must be careful not to issue direct orders. But they can make their preferences clear. Most generals are savvy political operators and will take the hint; those now in uniform won’t want to act in a way could piss off the guy who will become their boss in little more than a week.
Second, Biden, his secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken, or one of his other top national security aides should give a speech as soon as possible making it clear that the United States wants to avoid another war in the Middle East. They’d have to finesse their language carefully; Biden can’t afford to take the threat of military force against Iran off the table completely, since he knows that such a threat is part of what drove Iran to sign the JCPOA in the first place.
But worded right, the speech could put Trump in a double bind. First, it could remind his supporters that Trump too has promised not to start a Middle East war—one that most of them also oppose—many times before. That could hurt Trump’s standing with his base—the one he needs if he’s going to run again in 2024—if he attacks Iran anyway.
Second, the speech should point out that the only plausible pretext for a war would be Iran’s uranium enrichment and its refusal to abide by or reenter the JCPOA under Trump. And it should then remind everyone that since both the Biden team and the Iranian government, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei down, have signaled their willingness to resume the deal after Jan. 20, that rationale makes no sense.
Highlighting the hypocrisy of Trump’s threats on Iran and the faulty reasoning behind them might not be enough to keep a desperate, impulsive, and irrational president from lashing out during his last days in office. Trump has demonstrated his immunity to reason many times, including when his own best interests were on the line. The only guaranteed way to stop a war, then, is to get him out of the White House as soon as possible. But given how low the odds are that a second impeachment or use of the 25th Amendment will succeed in time, these steps might be the most that Biden can do right now to help avoid a conflict that neither country wants. Given the stakes, he can’t afford not to try.