There's a Very Simple Way for Biden to Get Back on Track with Iran | Opinion

How do you deal with a four decade-long adversary whose negotiators are some of the best in the world and whose government is likely to spend more time lecturing you than searching for a way forward? These are the questions incoming President Joe Biden will soon confront as he and his national security team attempt to prevent U.S.-Iran relations from being dragged further down the toilet.

Iran of course is hardly at the top of Biden's overall agenda, which will be filled with domestic issues like taming the coronavirus pandemic and getting the U.S. economy back on track. But every day that the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign against Tehran is on the books, introducing some semblance of stability in the U.S.-Iran relationship will be that much harder.

Right now, there is no relationship to speak of. President Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the imposition of a web of economic sanctions on practically every sector of the Iranian economy have all but poisoned the prospects of pragmatic dialogue during Trump's term. The Iranians, no slouches to pressure (this is, after all, the same country that survived eight long years of war with a militarily-superior Iraq in the 1980's), have responded to the sanctions not by capitulating to Washington's long list of demands but by doubling down and resisting. The last three years has been a non-stop period of escalation, where a negative U.S. action produces an equal and opposite negative reaction from Tehran. This is the same cycle of escalation that nearly brought the two nations to war last January—a war that was only avoided by the fact that Tehran's retaliatory ballistic missile attack on U.S. troops in Iraq fortunately didn't result in any U.S. fatalities.

To this day, proponents of the maximum pressure strategy remain totally convinced that time is on Washington's side. All the United States needs to do, they argue, is to continue to crack down on Iran's export earnings and trading relationships until the political leadership in Tehran is so desperate for economic relief that it crawls back to the negotiating table and give away the store. Yet this is precisely what the U.S. has been doing since 2018, with very little to show for the effort other than more tension in the Middle East.

Have U.S. sanctions had a negative effect on Iran's economy? Of course. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran's GDP has shrunk by 5 percent this year. The value of the Iranian rial in relation to the U.S. dollar has plummeted by 450 percent between January 2018 and October 2020, increasing the price of commodities and wiping out the savings of many Iranians. Tehran's crude exports have declined by at least 50 percent since May 2018. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself faulted U.S. sanctions for depriving Iran of $150 billion in revenue, a figure that amounts to approximately one-third of Iran's total economy.

But saying that sanctions have lightened Iran's wallet is about as obvious as saying that deploying more police officers to a specific neighborhood will reduce crime in the area. The question isn't whether the U.S. maximum pressure strategy would hurt Tehran financially—it was whether economic sanctions and maximalist demands would help Washington arrive at a better deal with the Iranians. Given Iran's response to date—a uranium enrichment stockpile that is 12 times larger today than it was before maximum pressure was implemented; the construction of an advanced centrifuge hall in the mountains; attacks on the oil infrastructure of its neighbors; threats to kick out nuclear inspectors and increase enrichment levels if U.S. and European sanctions aren't lifted—it's not a stretch to argue that the Trump administration's policy has been a complete and total disaster.

This is the situation Joe Biden will be walking into come January. Fortunately, there is a dim bulb of light at the end of the tunnel.

There are a number of ways Biden could proceed with the Iranians. Some of them, like maintaining the maximum pressure strategy, border on the outlandish. Others are ideal in theory but far-fetched in reality. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for instance, proposed using the economic leverage Washington holds over Tehran to work for a better agreement that includes Tehran's ballistic and cruise missile programs. This recommendation, however, would be akin to pushing on a locked door. Ballistic missiles are an even more important element to Iran's defense strategy than its nuclear program. Even if Tehran was wiling to put those missiles on the negotiating table (there is no indication this is even remotely plausible), it would only do so if Washington was prepared to offer deeper concessions of its own. It goes without saying that some of those concessions, like ceasing arms sales to the Gulf, would make a lot of people in the Beltway unhappy and would therefore be a heavy lift regardless of who the U.S. President was.

Yet a straightforward return by both Washington and Tehran is more than possible. Rouhani and Biden have both stated their interest in exploring this option. It would be a rather simple proposition: Iran returns to the nuclear obligations it gradually violated and the U.S. in exchange provides the economic sanctions relief Tehran is afforded to under the deal. This is the fastest way to deescalate the situation and offers both nations a diplomatic exit ramp for further negotiation on other issues, whether it be Iran's missile programs or its regional behavior. The overall U.S. objective is not to save the JCPOA for the JCPOA's sake, but rather to ensure tension is kept to an absolute minimum.

Advocates of continuing the pressure on Iran will throw around words like "appeasement" and "weakness" to scare the incoming administration from breaking from the status-quo. But Joe Biden need not pay attention to the peanut gallery. All the evidence available illustrates that maximum pressure is a failing strategy that creates more unnecessary problems for the United States at a time when it already has its hands full at home.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

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