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US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

January 22, 2021
Hannah Somerville
12 min read
On Wednesday, January 20, Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th President of the United States
On Wednesday, January 20, Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th President of the United States
The Biden administration has already signalled its willingness to return to the JCPOA
The Biden administration has already signalled its willingness to return to the JCPOA
But the agreement is subject to Iran also returning to compliance - and that is a big "if"
But the agreement is subject to Iran also returning to compliance - and that is a big "if"

On Wednesday, January 20, Joe Biden was inaugurated as 46th President of the United States. With the US rejoining the Paris climate accords within hours of his instalment in the White House, followed by the World Health Organization earlier today, there is every sign that the lifelong Democrat and former vice-president in the Obama administration is already making good on his promise to pursue a drastically different approach to foreign relations than his predecessor, Donald Trump.

But after the most tumultuous four years for US-Iran relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, what can we expect future US engagement with the Islamic Republic to look like? The Biden administration has already signaled its intention to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Tehran resumes strict compliance with the 2015 agreement. That is a big “if", and as Biden's Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken says, "We're a long way from there".

IranWire spoke to a collection of experts on what Iran policy might look like with President Biden at the helm.


The Historian

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Xiyue Wang is Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a history PhD candidate at Princeton University. Between 2016 and 2019 he was unjustly detained in Evin Prison, Tehran on fabricated espionage charges along with another American dual national, Nizar Zakka.

Wang believes the Biden administration should wait until after Iran's June 2021 presidential election before considering a return to the nuclear deal, arguing that any approach might be more effective with a conservative as President of the Islamic Republic.

"There's a conflict of interest on the Iranian side. It has an ideological need for carefully-managed hostility with the US. But at the same time, no single country in the world can survive without dealing with the US, and it's a myth that conservatives in Iran don't want to. But they want to do it on their own terms.

"The Biden administration is in real danger of continuing to buy into the moderate-hardliner dichotomy. There has been some call to get back to the JCPOA before the election [the Iranian presidential election, scheduled to take place in June 2021] so that a moderate like Rouhani might again be elected and strengthened. This is based on the mind-boggling belief that there are two 'camps', hardliners and moderates. I don't see it that way.

"The early years of the Islamic Republic were very radical. Pragmatic politicians resigned, and ever since, the country has not played according to international rules. The regime does what it sees fit, though it can't do much. Radicals like [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini didn't understand the modern world very deeply. If Iran wants to deal with the international community, which is inevitable, it cannot do so through this boorish, hardline, aggressive approach. It needs a more civilized face. That's where the moderates came in. But they're not an independent political force; moderates and hardliners in Iran serve the same interests. Inside Iran, when he speaks to Iranians if not when he speaks English, [foreign minister] Javad Zarif uses the same revolutionary rhetoric.

"Despite this, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] fears the moderates could obtain the political capital to become independent. For that reason, just a few months after the JCPOA was completed [in 2015], the IRGC started its provocations against America, undoing the benefits of the JCPOA immediately after it was confirmed. It was a very clear message that they didn't want to engage further. It might be better for Biden to end up dealing with a conservative because they are the ones who have the power."


The Analyst: International Crisis Group

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Ali Vaez is director of the Iran project and Senior Adviser to the President at International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nonprofit. His team sought to bridge the gaps between Iran and the P5+1 group —the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, which are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany — that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. Previously, he served as a senior political affairs officer at the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

He says the Biden administration should return to the original terms of the JCPOA and pursue a more consistent approach to human rights to restore the US's credibility in championing this issue.

"Joe Biden's presence in the White House has had an immediate impact on the political climate inside Iran. It has deepened the hardliners' concerns that Biden's revival of the JCPOA could strengthen their political rivals in the run up to the upcoming presidential elections in Iran. The two yellow card notices that the parliament issued to the foreign minister or the lawsuit against the communications minister could be seen in this context. 

"The 'maximum pressure' era has produced the worst of all worlds: economic stagnation for Iran, mounting international concern about its nuclear program, and simmering regional tensions. That the deal survives at all highlights the strength of its core bargain: rolling back Iran's nuclear activity for economic respite from sanctions emplaced in response to those very activities. Restoring that understanding is essential, and with the imminent arrival of a new US administration under President-elect Joe Biden, also viable.

"But it will require both Washington and Tehran, along with the deal's other participants, to move quickly and in good faith toward reviving the agreement. Subjecting diplomacy to leverage-focused one-upmanship and additional demands by either side would cause discord as predictable as it is avoidable. The sooner the better, especially now that the new legislation from the Iranian parliament has thrown a ticking bomb in the middle of this process. As such, if there is no significant progress in the next few weeks, tensions are bound to escalate.

"Unfortunately, Trump's penchant to disregard the United States' international commitments undermined US credibility. The new administration will now have to prove to the world that the US is a reliable negotiating partner and deals can survive administrations  – as was the norm in the US for many decades. 

"The last few years of sanctions and isolation certainly pushed Iran further in that direction by improvising the middle class and emboldening the most hardline, militaristic elements of the Islamic Republic. If the Iranian people are less concerned about making ends meet, they'd be able to focus more on some of their core demands for justice and pluralism."


The Analyst: Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit think-tank and policy institute based in Washington, DC. He has served as an Iranian-targets officer for the CIA and focuses on the Middle East, Islamic militancy and counter-terrorism. In 2019, both FDD and its CEO Mark Dubowitz were sanctioned by the Islamic Republic for being what Iran then considered "the designing and executing arm of the US administration".

Gerecht believes the terms of the original JCPOA are flawed and the Biden administration should not rush into rejoining it, and in any event, would face opposition from Congress. He expects human rights will be de-prioritized by the Biden administration and the focus will again be on arms control.


"It's going to be more or less a repeat of the Obama administration. There may be some qualifications here – some things have changed, the US has changed, and when Obama first started the outreach to Iran in 2012, we hadn't yet seen Syria descend into a bloodbath. So there may be some greater appreciation of the Islamic Republic and how it's hardened, not softened, over time.

"It's crystal clear that the provisions in the original JCPOA, which allowed the Iranians to keep their centrifuges, didn't make much sense, and Iranian nuclear activity has expanded since then. If Joe Biden wants to be serious about this, he should look at all aspects of the nuclear program, but also at Iran's actions throughout the region. He should not put arms control over regional issues.

"Biden's administration has a transatlantic disposition. They put policies through a prism of transatlantic relations; if France or Germany or the Brits want the US to return to the agreement so they can get back to commerce as usual, that will be a factor.

"The inclination is to try to seduce the Iranians back into a deal. Right now they're looking to trade tens of billions of dollars to try to encourage compliance, even though they know there are serious flaws in the agreement. I suspect the upcoming election will spook the Biden administration into throwing money at Iran more quickly.

"I also suspect the next Iranian president won't be as palatable to the West. It's a small bench to choose from and Rouhani was quite unusual because he had cultivated – or others had cultivated for him – a certain image in the West, even though he was one of the founding fathers of the clerical police state. And I think this will incline the Biden administration to be more generous more quickly.

"I think Biden's approach to Shia militias will broadly be a continuation of Trump's policy, without any radical changes. It's unlikely he will withdraw any more forces from Syria; Biden appreciates the value of having them there to stop the land bridge. But he does plan to cut the defense budget. Biden publicly said he thought the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani was a bad idea. Democrats are more nervous than Trump was about US force anywhere and I expect they won't extend themselves. There was an unpredictability about Trump that I don't think is true of Biden.

"He has no ability to change the human rights situation whatsoever. They'll put the priority on arms control; they say that is the overriding human rights issue and won't act on any other concern if it could complicate that. That's what happened in the Obama administration."


The Diplomat

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Richard Dalton was a senior member of the British Diplomatic Service from 1970 until his retirement in 2006. He was appointed Head of Personnel in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1998, and was sent as Britain's Ambassador to Libya in 1999, before serving as the UK's ambassador to Iran between 2003 and 2006. He is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

He believes Donald Trump's tenure will not affect internal politics in Iran or Iran's willingness (or not) to deal with the US now, and the Biden administration should return to the nuclear deal as soon as possible.

"Presidents come and go every four years, whereas the Iranian political system has a set of objectives which it works towards whoever is in power. The fact that there's now an opening, potentially, to get some economic concessions and get Iran back to its normal course is not altering the balance between political forces inside the country.

"There is no better course available to re-stabilize the Persian Gulf than to get back to where we were in 2015/16. Not only does it block Iran's pathway to rebuilding a stock of enriched uranium, which might conceivably one day be put to military use, but it provides a platform for other issues roiling in that part of the world.

"The US needs to re-establish credibility and confidence in their intentions towards Iran. It doesn't make sense to try and use its leverage to try to re-extract additional concessions from Iran other than the ones already promised, because Iran will simply dig its heels in. There's also no need to fuss about the Iranian elections: the president is the 'chief executive' of the Iranian system but does not have a deciding voice. The main lines of policy are made by the Supreme Leader.

"My hunch is that we will see more continuity than change in the US's commitment to remain extremely wary of Iran's activities in Arab countries. But the hair-trigger that Trump seemed to have, I think, will be stood down and the US military will remain extremely cautious about confronting Iran. Not because they lack the confidence in being able to smash it up, but because of the uncertainty it would inject into the region.

"Whenever you look at human rights infringements anywhere in the world, the position will be that there are too many abuses and they should be reigned back. There will be consistent messaging from the Biden administration against hostage-taking and the abuse of journalists. But the US has no pulpit from which to preach or pressure Iran about human rights."  


The Former Hostage

US-Iran Relations: A Long Way From There, Experts Agree

Barry Rosen is a senior adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran and executive director of public affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College. In 1979, aged just 23, he was one of 53 Americans captured and held hostage by revolutionaries at the US Embassy in Tehran in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. He continues to campaign for survivors to be compensated.

He believes a possible return to the JCPOA cannot be the immediate focus for the Biden administration because, by itself, it will do nothing to address the human rights situation in Iran.

"While I'm in favor of negotiations with Iran on a wide variety of matters, not the least regarding the JCPOA, more than anything else I want Iran to cease and desist from using dual nationals and other members of the international community as part of its ‘hostage diplomacy': as leverage in its relations with the world order. If the Islamic Republic does not adhere to the UN Convention on Hostage Taking and as policy punishes Iranian human rights advocates, then I submit those negotiations are hopeless, even if there is a desire to pursue accommodation on the nuclear issue.

"Only when Iran stops its flagrant human rights violations can I see the US lifting sanctions in a step-by-by-step process. If not, Iran will continue in its abduction of innocents interminably. I don't see the focus on the nuclear issue as the road to a more open and diplomatically accommodating nation-state. And I don't believe in any form of 'regime change', but the Islamic Republic is exhausting in its disdain for others, whether foreign or domestic.

"Foreign Minister Zarif likes to say hostage-taking is not done by state actors, but that's his cover for the Revolutionary Courts and the extra-legal acts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. No-one should be fooled by Zarif's cool, 'Western-like' image that he likes to portray to American and Western diplomats. He's the outwardly 'normal' diplomat who speaks English, but he is no better.

"Finally, I support any means to assist the Iranian people who are suffering under Covid-19. The US must help ease that pain by providing PPE and any one of the vaccines that can staunch the pandemic. All of it should be delivered free to every Iranian, not only to the political elite."



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