It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Who’s to Blame for Stalling U.S.-Iran Negotiations?

Biden was expected to revive the nuclear deal quickly—but as pro-Iran militias attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Washington strikes back in Syria, direct talks aren’t on the horizon.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi (R), in Tehran, on Feb. 21.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi (R), in Tehran, on Feb. 21. STR/AFP via Getty Images

_Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. Did you know it’s our column’s birthday? It’s been one year since we started doing these debates. When we started, Joe Biden had yet to clinch the Democratic nomination, and we were all still working in offices! It’s been a pretty intense first year.

Of course, as parents of young children, you and I both know that the first birthday is usually where the trouble really starts.

_Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. Did you know it’s our column’s birthday? It’s been one year since we started doing these debates. When we started, Joe Biden had yet to clinch the Democratic nomination, and we were all still working in offices! It’s been a pretty intense first year.

Of course, as parents of young children, you and I both know that the first birthday is usually where the trouble really starts.

Matthew Kroenig: Ha! The before times: I remember them well. I recall that our first column didn’t even mention COVID-19 because it wasn’t yet a major issue. My, how things change.

EA: Well, not everything has changed in a year. We’ve got attacks on U.S. service members in Iraq, U.S. strikes in Syria, mysterious attacks on freighters, Iran refusing to negotiate, tension over Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, and Congress upset about war powers. In fact, it seems like almost nothing has changed in the Middle East since last year, even since Biden came into office. Shall we start with the situation in Iraq?

MK: Yes, but it is hard to treat any of these items in isolation. I see them as almost all related to the bigger standoff between the Biden administration and Iran. The Biden team thought that Iran would be eager to restart direct diplomacy. And Tehran assumed Biden would be desperate enough to return to the nuclear deal that he would provide upfront sanctions relief. Both have been disappointed.

As a result, I see Iran trying to dial up pressure on the United States. It has few tools at its disposal, so it is ramping up its nuclear program, curtailing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and lashing out with military force against U.S. forces in Iraq and international shipping in the Persian Gulf.

EA: There’s some truth to that. Certainly, Iran’s approach to regional politics has always involved the copious use of asymmetric warfare, including proxies and guerrilla tactics. It’s often presented as evidence of malign or nefarious intent on the part of Iranian elites. But as a realist who’s studied the region, I can tell you that it’s both a logical reaction to the restrictions placed on Iran since the revolution and a fairly common set of tactics used by other states throughout the Middle East.

I think the more interesting question is indeed why tensions are escalating now. I think it would be a mistake to interpret this as a concerted campaign by Tehran to raise the temperature, perhaps on the nuclear side of the ledger. But it’s notable that proxy attacks in Iraq have been a consistent problem for years now, and it’s not clear how much direct control Iran actually exercises over these groups.

MK: To get readers up to speed, Iranian-backed proxies have been conducting rocket attacks against Iraqi bases that house U.S. contractors and service personnel for some time, but they have increased in recent weeks. An attack on Feb. 15 killed a U.S. contractor.

I see this latest spate of attacks in part as an attempt by Iran to test a new U.S. president. Would Biden be willing to push back against Iran and defend U.S. interests?

He passed the test. On Feb. 25, he responded with airstrikes against the groups’ camps in Syria, demonstrating to Iran that there will be consequences for attacking U.S. interests and killing Americans.

EA: It didn’t seem to work though. There was another rocket attack against Al Asad Air Base in Iraq just this week. Biden’s response to the attacks was proportional and likely justified. But it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

And it raises all kinds of questions: War powers and congressional approval, and more importantly, what U.S. troops are even achieving in Iraq and Syria at this point.

What would have happened had Biden not responded to the attacks? Tehran might have learned the lesson that Biden is weak and that Iran’s proxies can increase attacks against U.S. interests with impunity.

MK: The counterfactual is: What would have happened had Biden not responded to the attacks? Tehran might have learned the lesson that Biden is weak and that Iran’s proxies can increase attacks against U.S. interests with impunity. Now, they know that Biden is comfortable exercising military power and he will punch back if they go too far.

EA: But as an attempt to deter the rocket attacks, it was a miserable failure! They fired rockets, Biden bombed their camps in response, and they fired more rockets.

MK: So, it would be better to stand aside as they kill Americans?

There are always questions about the resolve of a new U.S. president, and the audience is bigger than Shiite militias. Former President Barack Obama was unwilling to use force when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed his red line in Syria, and it dealt a serious blow to U.S. military credibility globally. Former President Donald Trump helped reverse this narrative, and I was glad to see Biden demonstrate to the world early in his presidency that the use of U.S. military power remains on the table.

EA: You see a president who is comfortable using U.S. force. I see an ongoing pattern of presidents who are far too willing to use force for unclear reasons and with unclear constitutional authority. And there are a number of people in Joe Biden’s own party who agree with me. Democratic senators, including Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, have criticized the Syria strikes, along with GOP senators like Mike Lee and Chuck Grassley, pointing out that the legal rationale is dicey, and that Congress wasn’t even consulted beforehand. Surely it signals that we have become entirely too blasé about the use of force?

MK: The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but for a limited strike like this, it is unrealistic to seek Congress’s blessing beforehand. An American was killed, and the president responded swiftly to impose a cost on, and degrade the capability of, the perpetrators. I wouldn’t want to see that ability reined in. It would weaken the ability of the United States to deter and respond to attacks on its forces, bases, and allies.

EA: I think Congress would at least like a briefing—something the Biden administration has not yet given them.

But coming back to the bigger question of Iran’s role in these attacks, it’s still not entirely clear that this is some unified strategy coming out of Tehran. As political scientists know, it’s difficult to control proxy groups, particularly once you’ve given them weapons. These attacks could as easily be motivated by internal Iraqi security dynamics rather than some masterminded Iranian pressure strategy.

Where I think Iran is actually playing hardball is on the nuclear question and the discussions over the future of the nuclear deal. They’ve so far refused to negotiate directly, assessing—perhaps correctly—that they have more leverage now than once they’ve agreed to talks.

MK: By way of background, the Biden administration floated the idea of direct nuclear negotiations, but Iran refused, saying it is unwilling to talk until the United States lifts all of the nuclear-related sanctions imposed since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal. Washington says that Iran needs to first come into compliance with the nuclear limits set out in the deal. So, it seems that both sides want to return to the deal but are at a standoff over who will move first.

To be honest, I am not sure either side knows what to do next. I think they are both finding this more difficult than they expected.

EA: I mean, if both sides want to return, then it’s just a sequencing issue: sanctions for nuclear compliance in baby steps, which the European Union has already offered to help manage and finesse. The Iranians even held off on further nuclear violations through a short-term deal with the IAEA. To be blunt, it seems like it’s Washington that’s the roadblock at this point.

Only Americans think you are supposed to play nice as a prelude to negotiations. Other countries know that you play hardball.

MK: I completely disagree. The U.S. government has already made two goodwill gestures: floating the idea of direct talks through the Europeans and revoking Trump’s U.N. sanctions snapback. Iran is going in the other direction, ramping up pressure. The IAEA deal is a good example. It is not a compromise but a threat. Tehran will continue to comply with the internationally agreed inspections regime for the next three months, but thereafter, it will restrict inspectors’ access to its nuclear facilities.

I was once told that only Americans think you are supposed to play nice as a prelude to negotiations. Other countries know that you play hardball. I think we are seeing that truism in this case.

My advice to the Biden administration would be to stand firm. If they grant more concessions, it will be clear that we want this deal more than Iran does, and leverage will be lost.

EA: So Iran’s concessions are a “threat” and American concessions are a “goodwill gesture.” Got it. Let’s be real. Neither of those so-called concessions are actually conceding anything. The U.N. sanctions snapback was never a real possibility, just a Trump fantasy. And direct talks were a core component of the original deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It’s unfortunate, but the United States is the party that initially violated the JCPOA by withdrawing and slapping sanctions back on Iran. Now Washington may need to be willing to undo sanctions in a phased process in order to rectify that mistake. And I think Biden is making a huge mistake if he is suggesting that he won’t return to the JCPOA and instead expects to negotiate a better deal. That’s literally what Trump failed to do for four years.

Imagine if former President Richard Nixon had gone to China, and then just a few years later, Jimmy Carter had renounced the opening to China and withdrawn U.S. recognition.

MK: I think we agree on one thing; the Biden administration could break the impasse by finding a mutually acceptable way to sequence nuclear compliance for sanctions relief. But that can’t be done tacitly. They need direct talks, which the United States has offered and Iran has refused. The ball is in Tehran’s court, and it deserves the blame for the current stalemate.

On the goal of negotiations, my understanding is that Biden wants to return to the terms of the JCPOA—but only as a first step. This will then become the basis for negotiating a bigger deal that includes longer time limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and that also covers Iran’s missile program and destabilizing activities in the region.

So, yes, the objective is the same as Trump’s, but the imagined pathway is different. Trump led with sticks. Biden is trying carrots.

EA: Look, history isn’t a blank slate. I can’t understand how Tehran could bear most of the blame here when it was Washington that torpedoed the deal—an agreement it had signed only a few years earlier. And while I’d love to see a bigger, better deal with Iran down the road—preferably one that helps to shape a new, more balanced Middle East security architecture—it can’t be the immediate goal. Getting back into compliance with U.S. commitments is the first step and the only way to convince Iran that we could credibly commit to further deals.

I thought State Department counselor Wendy Sherman’s confirmation hearings this week were interesting on this point. She was a principle negotiator on the JCPOA under the Obama administration and got some very pointed questioning, particularly from Sen. James Risch, who at one point described the JCPOA as “an agreement with Barack Obama and John Kerry,” not “an agreement with America.”

He’s alluding to the conservative argument that Obama should have passed the JCPOA as a formal treaty, which would have tied the hands of future governments. But that’s pretty misleading. Just look at how many actual treaties the Trump administration ripped up!

The bigger problem is increasing partisan polarization in foreign policy and the notion that every president can just pick and choose which of his predecessor’s foreign commitments to honor. Imagine if former President Richard Nixon had gone to China, and then just a few years later, Jimmy Carter had renounced the opening to China and withdrawn U.S. recognition.

Iran’s behavior is often no different than states that are U.S. partners in the Middle East: the United Arab Emirates’ arms proxies, the Israelis have nuclear weapons, and the Saudis—as we were reminded this week—murder dissidents.

You can see how destabilizing a seesaw between administrations on foreign policy can be. And when it comes to Iran, it’s hard to see how you could ever hope to negotiate a bigger deal under that kind of partisan constraint. Starting small, with a return to JCPOA compliance, is the only way.

MK: It is unfortunate that the Obama administration didn’t make more of an effort to negotiate a deal that could win bipartisan support at home. I hope the Biden administration learned from that mistake. If they want a future deal with Iran to stick, the terms must be strong enough that Republicans will support it. If not, it will be abandoned the next time a Republican wins the White House. The onus is on Biden to bring along Congress and the American people with his Iran policy.

EA: I might agree, if I believed there was any deal with Iran that Republicans in Congress would ever support. Remember, there were those who criticized Trump as too soft on Iran! The sooner Americans treat Iran as a normal country rather than treating it as a pariah that Washington cannot even talk to, the better.

After all, Iran’s behavior is often no different than states that are U.S. partners in the Middle East: the United Arab Emirates’ arms proxies, the Israelis have nuclear weapons, and the Saudis—as we were reminded this week—murder dissidents. That was the core intuition that the Obama administration got right about the Middle East. I’d hate to see Biden throw it away just to look tough to people who will never agree with him in any case.

MK: If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, then it can start behaving like one. And Obama was wrong to ask U.S. partners to share the Middle East with the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror. Trump’s instincts on the region were better. But I suspect we won’t solve this issue this week. Resume the fight here next time?

EA: Sure. I’ve got to go deter my toddler from destroying the furniture. Just like U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, it hasn’t worked so far, but I figure if I just keep putting pressure on her, she’ll get the message eventually. Right?

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig