President Biden Must Follow the Advice of Candidate Biden on Iran
Despite criticizing the maximum pressure campaign, the new administration is continuing Trump’s policies—and sending the wrong message to Tehran.
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.
The United States is already nearly two months into Joe Biden’s presidency. Yet despite his campaign promise of returning to the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has still not returned to the agreement—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—former President Donald Trump’s so-called maximum pressure sanctions have remained in place, and tensions with Iran have not de-escalated. Meanwhile, Iranians are soon heading to the polls for presidential elections in June, with the next Iranian president most likely shifting the political direction of the country. If Biden fails to take swift action to return to the JCPOA, this golden window of opportunity to revive diplomacy with Tehran will soon close and the path forward will get much more complicated.
Although Biden’s supporters have patiently waited for his administration to settle in over the past seven weeks, reviving diplomacy with Iran does not seem to be a priority. Instead, renewed airstrikes in Syria—in response to militia rocket attacks in Iraq—have raised concerns over further escalation with Iran, the prospect of more military confrontations in the region, and a permanent unraveling of the historic diplomatic achievement that was the Obama-Biden administration’s foreign-policy legacy.
More alarming are actions and statements by senior administration officials that appear to run counter to what Biden and his team had been saying for years in their outspoken criticisms of Trump’s Iran policy. On Feb. 18, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States is ready to talk, but without any substantial steps or sanctions relief for Iran, the offer is little different than Trump’s own attempts at talks.
On March 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted, “Iran’s moving in the wrong direction” and Iran should “come back into compliance with its obligations,” all while the United States remains outside of the deal and in total noncompliance with its own obligations. And on March 2, a White House official told the Wall Street Journal that a review of sanctions could take months, contradicting Biden’s own comments last year when he urged Trump to take “immediate steps” toward sanctions relief in Iran during the pandemic.
Though Biden repeatedly criticized Trump for his failed Iran policy, in practice, the new administration is maintaining the maximum pressure campaign it inherited from the previous administration; no direct diplomacy has yet been reported between Tehran and Washington, the United States is still outside the nuclear deal, and Trump-era sanctions on Iran remain intact. Trump may be gone; however, for ordinary Iranians living through a deadly pandemic and a devastated economy, nothing has changed.
So far, the Biden administration has not clearly communicated its plan for diplomacy with Iran, and statements by senior administration officials seem inconsistent with past criticism of Trump’s policy. For instance, in October 2017, months before Trump formally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Biden supported the deal’s efficacy and warned against Trump’s hopes for a “better deal.” Now that Biden is in charge, his administration is using language similar to the Trump team’s by indicating a desire to “extend and strengthen” the deal.
Even before announcing his presidential run, Biden was a strong critic of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. In May 2018—after Trump announced the U.S. was quitting the deal—Biden issued a scathing statement calling the decision a “profound mistake,” noting that “talk of a ‘better deal’ is an illusion,” and stressed that Trump was manufacturing a crisis with Iran. As a candidate, Biden announced his intent to return to the nuclear deal and reiterated its effectiveness after Trump’s reckless assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 that brought the two countries to the brink of war and led to spiraling military escalations in the region.
In addition to Biden himself, key members of his administration echoed the same critiques of Trump’s Iran policy. Before becoming secretary of state, Blinken argued that the United States was worse off in the Middle East because of Trump’s “original sin” of abrogating the Iran deal. In 2019, Jake Sullivan—now the U.S. national security advisor—called Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal “predatory unilateralism.”
A strong desire to return to diplomacy with Iran and the JCPOA’s success was also reflected in the 2020 Democratic Party platform. However, now that the Biden team is in power, what could be a straightforward and fast reversal of a failed Trump policy has turned into a complex and long-term game of chicken. The same team that criticized Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for leaving a working deal and abusing sanctions is now essentially doing the same. And there seem to be no short- or long-term plans in place besides looking tough on Tehran and not giving in.
It should not be surprising that Biden, his team, and his party would so vociferously defend the crowning foreign-policy achievement of the Obama administration. What is surprising, however, is the muddled approach the Biden administration has exhibited thus far, especially with Iran’s presidential election just months away and the likely prospect of a much less diplomacy-friendly administration coming to power in Iran. Biden argued the importance of the Iran deal for years; it is time for him to take bold action to reverse the Trump policies he strongly rebuked.
Although Biden moved quickly to reverse other Trump policies, such as the Muslim travel ban, he continues to drag his feet on this issue of great urgency. Not only does returning to the deal with Iran avert the possibility of unwanted conflict; it also helps to reduce nuclear proliferation. But there is another immediate global crisis that Biden has yet to address vis-a-vis Iran: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanctions that impede Iran’s ability to fight the pandemic were inhumane under Trump and are still inhumane under Biden, who has yet to lift any of them. This is particularly troubling given Biden’s own statements on the topic. In April 2020, Biden wrote another stern critique of Trump’s Iran policy, which focused on the need for sanctions relief during the pandemic. In that article, Biden recognized that U.S. sanctions “are limiting Iran’s access to medical supplies and needed equipment.”
With every day that passes in which Biden has not returned to the nuclear deal and lifted sanctions on Iran, he is essentially continuing Trump’s Iran policy. This is not lost on ordinary Iranians, who in recent polls cited lifting sanctions on Iran’s central bank—critical to all humanitarian trade with Iran—as the most meaningful and positive action the Biden administration could take toward Iran. The expectation that Iran should change course while Biden maintains Trump’s maximum pressure policy in place is unreasonable, especially as Iranians continue to suffer under brutal sanctions.
Although Tehran started reducing its compliance with the nuclear deal one full year after Trump left the deal, Iran still remains a party to the agreement while the United States has completely abandoned it and is currently in total noncompliance. The Iranians made measured and reversible reductions to their compliance and maintained a strategy of patience awaiting the results of the 2020 U.S. election. Now, Biden’s delay may send a signal to Tehran that promises to reverse Trump’s failed policy were election slogans rather than actual policy.
Though Biden has only been in office for seven weeks, it seems he is wavering on his Iran promises and giving more space to the voices who spent years trying to sabotage the deal with Iran, such as New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, than the people who supported Biden on the promise of diplomacy. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama cautioned against some detractors, saying “many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”
Biden will have to replace public posturing with serious steps to return to diplomacy. The best starting point would be easing sanctions on humanitarian grounds to ensure Iranians have the essential goods they need to combat COVID-19. These may have been Trump’s crippling sanctions until Jan. 20, but now they are Biden’s crippling sanctions—punishing an entire population during a deadly pandemic.
This good faith measure can restore hope for innocent Iranians and facilitate a return to compliance with the deal on both sides. Salvaging the nuclear deal requires bold moves from Biden—as bold as his 2018 comments. It was Trump who broke that agreement, but now Biden needs to repair it before it’s too late.
Assal Rad is a senior research fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her doctorate in history at the University of California, Irvine. Twitter: @assalrad