If Biden, Then What, on Iran? | Opinion

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," wrote Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man. Such sentiment describes perfectly the lingering adherents of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA. Indeed, two-plus years of American sanctions and Iranian nuclear violations have not convinced the deal's defenders—chiefly in Europe—of the need to look past an accord that is dead in all but name. Earlier this month, those devotees gathered to stress the importance of "preserving" the JCPOA. Their hope? The election of Joe Biden, an upending of President Donald Trump's Maximum Pressure policy against Tehran and the forging of a pathway back to the JCPOA.

Luckily for them, the Democratic candidate for president appears ready to deliver. Writing for CNN this Sunday, Biden promised to "offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy" and American re-engagement with the 2015 deal should Iran opt for "strict compliance."

Biden's latest writings on Iran reveal that the post-Cold War trend of American presidents doing the exact opposite of their predecessors on foreign policy, and seeking political dividends for doing so, would continue if the Democrat is elected.

Lest we forget, Bill Clinton's liberal internationalism reversed George H.W. Bush's one-term realism, and George W. Bush campaigned for a more "humble" foreign policy—later amended by 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the "freedom agenda." In turn, Barack Obama's skepticism of democracy promotion, withdrawal from Iraq and nuclear diplomacy with Iran were met with President Trump's "America First" policy, as well as withdrawal from various multilateral agreements, be they related to arms control, trade, or the environment.

But if a new administration reverses course and attempts to claw back the JCPOA, the beneficiary would not be Biden, his foreign policy team, the Democratic Party, American foreign policy, or even the global non-proliferation regime. It would be Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps protecting his regime. Setting aside the difficulty of verifying Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal, even under President Barack Obama, Tehran's JCPOA record was problematic, as was its overall lack of adherence to the UNSC Resolution codifying the accord.

A potential Biden administration might internalize these challenges while in office and perhaps set its sights lower, opting to merely arrest Iran's nuclear growth and freeze American financial pressure in a phased approach akin to the interim Iran nuclear deal from 2013 known as the JPOA. Even this more modest proposal would be replete with hurdles, however, including Iranian domestic politics and continued nuclear and regional escalation.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts the first ballot in the 2016 elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran (Photo by Scott Peterson) Getty

While the Iranian component of what happens in the event of a Biden victory is one of the least discussed issues in international politics today, it is among the most consequential. As former secretary of defense James Mattis liked to say, "The enemy gets a vote."

Thanks to presidential elections in 2021, the Islamic Republic is set to shift even further to the right. The upcoming political contest is set to mirror dynamics last seen in 2004-2005, when a hardline parliament built on mass disqualifications became the stepping stone for an ultra-hardline candidate—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—to become president. Accordingly, this February's parliamentary elections, which featured a hardline sweep, was likely a dress rehearsal for the upcoming presidential election. The next Iranian president may well choose to do exactly what Ahmadinejad did, and escalate the nuclear crisis.

What Biden might do in that scenario is unclear.

Although it is tempting to see this dilemma as the result of American pressure, it is actually a feature of Iran's ever-narrowing political system and indicative of the country's precarious domestic politics. Even though Iranian presidents do not make foreign policy, they can help shape it. An ultra-hardline president backed by a constellation of diplomacy-skeptics and an aging and increasingly distrustful supreme leader means Tehran is sure to drive a harder bargain, if it opts for diplomacy at all. Rejecting American overtures early and often while increasing nuclear output might be part of a strategy to force American accommodation, garner premature sanctions relief or simply extract a better deal.

Given the regime's strategy of nuclear incrementalism, there is no reason to believe Tehran will tone down its regional escalation through material support for proxies (i.e., missile proliferation) just to please a new U.S. administration eager for diplomacy. The Islamic Republic has spent considerable blood and treasure on creating and entrenching what it calls "the Axis of Resistance"—a constellation of pro-Iran and anti-status quo actors—in the heart of the Middle East. These groups form a key component of Iranian security policy, exerting pressure on U.S. and allied interests in the region. If Washington reverts to its "myopic" Iran policy and prioritizes the nuclear issue at the expense of others, it will effectively lock in Tehran's regional gains and signal irresolution to address other forms of bad behavior.

Worse, if Washington offers sanctions relief as part of a nuclear freeze-for-freeze, it is unclear what sort of leverage, absent the threat of kinetic action, the U.S. will have left to change Iranian regional behavior.

None of this means Iran will permanently eschew negotiations. The current withering of the Iranian economy—a result of the maximum pressure policy—means Tehran's acceptance of negotiations is more a question of "when" than "if." However, a rush to embrace diplomacy (read: relieve sanctions)—whether in hopes of spiting a political rival, avoiding pitfalls in Iranian domestic politics or escaping an escalation spiral—can lay the foundation for another American defeat at the negotiating table.

Diplomacy is most effective when backed by force. A potential Biden administration should internalize that Trump's Iran sanctions are the most effective force for a new agreement. Accordingly, those sanctions should be left in place until Tehran understands that there is no way out, but through.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.