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Prospects for U.S.-Iran Relations at the Start of the Biden Administration

Kenneth M. Pollack
Sunday, January 10, 2021, 10:01 AM

The future of the Iran nuclear deal and more depend on how the next administration responds to Tehran's mixed messages.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, prepares to deliver a speech in Qom, Iran, on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo credit:, CC BY 4.0

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Editor’s Note: One of President-elect Biden’s most pressing foreign policy questions will be whether, and how, to reengage with Iran over its nuclear program. American Enterprise Institute’s Kenneth Pollack argues that hopes to negotiate a better agreement are, for now, unrealistic and that the window for action will not be open for long.

Daniel Byman


Despite the welter of conflicting actions and statements coming from senior Iranian leaders, it seems that Tehran would welcome a quick return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era nuclear agreement, by the incoming Biden administration. However, Iran appears to be signaling that the opportunity to do so will be brief, and if the United States does not immediately resume compliance with the terms of the original agreement, that window will close quickly and perhaps permanently. The Biden administration’s best approach will be to pursue complementary near-term and long-term strategies simultaneously to bring Iran back into compliance with the limits on its nuclear program while raising the stakes of Tehran’s adventurism in the region and paving the way to a follow-on agreement.

The Signal in the Noise

Iran’s leaders have made a number of statements and taken several actions that have created confusion regarding their likely response to an offer by the incoming Biden administration for both parties to return to the terms of the 2015 JCPOA. Five key statements and actions provide the greatest insight into Iran’s likely course of action:

  • On Dec. 14, 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani apparently stated that Iran would rejoin the JCPOA “within one hour” of the United States doing so.
  • Two days later, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced in a televised speech that “[i]f we can remove the sanctions, we must not delay even one hour. It’s been four years it has been delayed.”
  • These statements came after Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, passed a bill on Dec. 1, giving European countries until early February to provide Iran with relief from the U.S. sanctions or else Iran would “suspend U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities and require the government to boost its uranium enrichment.”
  • The Majlis bill is consistent with the position of Iran’s hard-liners, who have made clear that they oppose any negotiations or cooperation with the United States, including a return to the terms of the JCPOA.
  • Finally, in recent weeks, Iran has resumed enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent purity and begun construction activity at both the Natanz and Fordow nuclear plants, where they appear to be building additional underground facilities.

Taken together, these signs suggest that Iran is trying to welcome America’s return to the original JCPOA, while warning it against any effort to expand or add on to that deal.

Khamenei’s statement is the most important by far. Not only is he Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, but he also has been hypercritical of the JCPOA—which has raised the prospect that he might be uninterested in returning to it even if the Biden administration is. His remarks in December indicate that he wants economic relief in exchange for returning to the agreement and probably hopes that this will placate the tens of millions of Iranians unhappy over not just the impact of U.S. sanctions but also the pandemic and Iran’s long-standing corruption and mismanagement. Indeed, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh told the Majlis on Dec. 13 that he expected Iran to quickly reach 2.3 million barrels per day of oil exports as soon as the United States lifts sanctions—a major jump from the 500,000-600,000 barrels per day it has been exporting over the past few months. Such a public statement also speaks to the desire of Iran’s leaders to reassure their country that help is on the way.

These various suggestions also indicate that the key issue for Khamenei and other Iranian leaders is not reentry into the agreement, but the prospect that the United States will seek to expand the terms of the JCPOA or negotiate a follow-on pact that would further restrict Iran’s nuclear program. That is a reasonable concern on their part since President-elect Biden has made no secret of his desire to “engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” It is that prospect that Tehran appears determined to foreclose ahead of time.

Iran’s hard-liners largely hate the JCPOA, and they have consistently opposed it on the basis that it was too generous to the United States and too disadvantageous to the Iranians. Khamenei may not want to force them to accept a new deal that imposes even more restrictions on Iran, or he may simply agree with them.

Alternatively or additionally, Khamenei may not feel there is anything else the United States can offer him to make a revised JCPOA or a follow-on agreement worthwhile for Iran. Khamenei always saw the JCPOA as a simple transaction between the United States and Iran: ending sanctions for accepting nuclear constraints. He may believe that the JCPOA already gives him everything he wants or everything he can realistically expect from the United States, more so since it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. Congress would repeal any of the sanctions legislation on Iran. And the U.S. sanctions pertaining to Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and the like will probably remain in place regardless of any further concessions Tehran might make on its nuclear program.

Consequently, the Rouhani and Khamenei statements should be seen as affirmations that Iran would rejoin the JCPOA on its original terms if the United States did the same. The Majlis bill complements this in Iranian eyes as a marker that the regime is uninterested in lengthy negotiations—the kind that would be required for a revision of the JCPOA or a follow-on agreement. And the new enrichment activity and the construction at Fordow and Natanz are probably meant to put further pressure on the United States to return to the original deal quickly, lest the Iranians expand their nuclear facilities in ways that Washington would find alarming.

The Narrow Window

All of this suggests that the time frame for bringing Iran back to the JCPOA might be very tight. First, if the analysis of the various, seemingly contradictory Iranian statements above is correct, then if the Biden administration were to insist on trying to renegotiate the terms of the JCPOA or negotiating a follow-on agreement before resuming U.S. compliance with it, the Iranians might walk away from the entire agreement. That seems to be what they are signaling, although that might just be a bluff.

Even though Rouhani and the moderates—and apparently even Khamenei—would prefer to see the JCPOA reinstated and the sanctions lifted, there is reason to believe that this is a preference, not a necessity. Khamenei in particular may be willing to weather the sanctions indefinitely if he does not get his way.

Iran has already withstood the sanctions for three years without caving in to the demands of the Trump administration, and Tehran may be ready to hold out longer if its only alternative is to agree to terms it finds unacceptable. Khamenei has repeatedly agreed with the hard-liners that the United States should not have been trusted to keep the terms of the original agreement. Iran’s hard-liners have always seen the country’s economic health as less important than its security, ideological purity and nationalist aspirations. Many of them seem to prefer an autarkic “resistance economy” to Rouhani’s policy of nuclear cooperation with the West.

Moreover, Iran’s presidential elections loom in June 2021, and they do not bode well for lengthy negotiations over the JCPOA. Although Iranian presidential elections are incredibly unpredictable, what evidence we do have strongly indicates that a hard-liner will succeed Rouhani. Before the 2020 Majlis elections, Iran’s Council of Guardians disqualified more than 50 percent of those who applied to run for election, including 75 percent of the members of the outgoing assembly and virtually all of the reformist and moderate candidates. The favoritism toward the various hard-line factions was so outrageous that the reformists called for a boycott of the elections, resulting in the lowest turnout in Iranian history. There is no reason to expect anything different from the presidential elections.

Removing Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from Iran’s internal conversation and replacing them with hard-liners is likely to be equally problematic for U.S.-Iran negotiations down the line. Given the hard-line dominance of the rest of the Iranian regime, it is unclear who would even make the argument in favor of such negotiations during Tehran’s deliberations—let alone argue for further compromises to get an agreement.

In addition, whatever the Biden administration does, a hard-line Iranian leadership is likely to spin it to justify discontinuing negotiations with Washington. If the United States returns to the JCPOA, Iran’s hard-liners are likely to argue that Tehran got everything that Khamenei wanted and does not need anything else. And if the United States hasn’t rejoined the deal by that point in time, Iran’s leadership would probably conclude that the United States is not interested in doing so and is only interested in squeezing more out of the Iranians than they are willing to give.

The Long and the Short of a New American Approach

If the Biden administration is going to navigate the obstacle course that Tehran is trying to lay out for it, it is going to have to employ differing but complementary short-term and long-term approaches to Iran. This will be difficult, both because shifting from one approach to the other requires knowing when to do so and because changing gears will require the administration to devote more energy and effort to the Iranian nuclear problem than it probably would like given the vast range of other problems the United States already faces.

First and foremost, the new administration will need to negotiate a quick return to the original terms of the JCPOA and temporarily set aside any ambitions of getting a follow-on agreement for now. America’s first need is to get the Iranians to cease and desist from their nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA because these are undermining both the agreement and the wider security of the region. Moreover, doing so is the best way to change the harmful narrative created by President Trump that the United States is the rogue state, unwilling to abide by the terms of an international agreement (and a U.N. Security Council resolution). The rest of the world needs to understand that this is a different administration and that Iran is the problem, not America.

Nevertheless, quickly rejoining the JCPOA will almost certainly require the United States to forgo its desire to improve it. That would instead have to become a longer-term goal. And for that to happen—to get the Iranians to agree to new negotiations, let alone get them to agree to a more restrictive follow-on agreement—the United States would have to develop new leverage against Tehran.

That might include the threat of reimposing sanctions, but it probably shouldn’t. First, it will not help America’s international support to once again renege on the original agreement or even to threaten to do so. That would, in turn, make it hard to get the international support for sanctions that helped Obama get an agreement where Trump failed. Second, at the most practical level, reimposing the sanctions was not enough to get Tehran to agree to renegotiate the JCPOA with Trump. There is no reason to believe it would create greater success for Biden.

Thus, to get such a follow-on agreement, Biden would have to manufacture more leverage against Tehran than Trump did with his “maximum pressure” campaign. The only realistic way is to do the one thing that Trump refused to do. The one thing that appears to be dearer to Iran’s hard-liners than a flourishing economy (other than threatening regime change) is their creeping dominance of the Middle East. Biden would have to halt the expansion of Iranian influence across the region and probably start to roll back the gains that Tehran has made in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gulf over the past 12 years.

On the plus side, containing and rolling back Iranian expansionism is also what all of America’s regional allies and many of its global allies want most from the United States, although the latter seek a more restrained version than the former.

Indeed, at its broadest level, such a policy should be designed to reengage with the problems of the Middle East and shore up the United States’s regional allies across the board to prevent Iran from picking off any more of them, while giving them the strength and confidence needed to reform domestically and refrain from dangerous foreign adventures (like the Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen).

Rhetorically, it would require President Biden early on to publicly reaffirm America’s commitment to the Carter Doctrine and its Reagan Corollary, which pledge the United States to defend its Gulf allies, including by responding to Iranian attacks on Gulf oil exports in ways that Trump would not. In particular, Trump’s refusal to respond to Iranian attacks on oil tankers carrying Saudi and Emirati oil in the summer of 2019 or the stunning Iranian drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s irreplaceable Abqaiq oil processing facility in September 2019 terrified America’s allies from Beirut to Jerusalem, and Rabat to Riyadh.

Militarily, reengaging the Middle East should not conjure images of the surge in Iraq. The current light U.S. military footprint is perfectly adequate. It just should not get much smaller. In an ideal world, it would also be better to bring U.S. troop levels in Iraq back up to about 5,000 and in Syria, to 2,000—the right numbers for the actual missions, and the size of those forces before Trump’s gratuitous, politically motivated troop cuts.

In the economic realm, it would be enormously helpful to commit at least $1 billion to help Iraq avert impending financial disaster. Likewise, Jordan looks like Iran’s next target, and an additional $300-$500 million for Amman would go a long way toward shoring up the Hashemite monarchy. American diplomats could also use the prospect of additional aid to help countries such as Bahrain, Morocco and even Egypt push ahead with their sluggish reform agendas.

None of this will break the bank, even in these unprecedented times. All of it will be enormously helpful in allowing the United States to help its allies withstand Iran’s regional offensive and to threaten that which Iran’s hard-liners cherish most, their sway across the Arab world. For better and worse, such modest American reengagement with the Middle East is the only realistic way for the Biden administration to acquire the leverage it would need to bring a recalcitrant Iran around to agree to a follow-on to the JCPOA that addresses the weaknesses in the original agreement.

And that would allow Biden to leave the situation in the Middle East better than what he inherited and better than what he was able to accomplish the last time around, when he was vice president and saddled with a similar set of problems in this difficult part of the world.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the former director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council.

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