The Biden Presidency: What Role for the UK on Iran?

Main Image Credit Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Boris Johnson in Tehran in 2017. Courtesy of Parspix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

UK and US policy towards Iran has diverged substantially in recent years, and both countries need to work hard to restore their partnership. The UK can do its part through a re-energised agenda on the Iran nuclear file, and towards Middle Eastern security more broadly.

After four years of US policy towards Iran that has been characterised by confrontation and uncertainty, the inauguration of President Joe Biden marks a transition in approach. Biden is widely expected to favour a US return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal), provided that Iran returns to full compliance. Biden has criticised the ‘maximum pressure’ approach of the Trump administration, claiming that it led Iran to get much closer to a nuclear bomb, while also triggering a dangerous escalation in tensions in the region. It would be a mistake though for the UK to rely on this change of leadership alone leading to lasting progress on the Iranian nuclear issue, and on wider regional security.

Easier Said Than Done

In part this is because a ‘clean’ return to the deal is much easier said than done. Although most of Iran’s breaches of the terms of the JCPOA can be reversed, it would take time to unwind them. Iranian research and development activities on centrifuges for uranium enrichment have resulted in knowledge gains that cannot be easily removed, while Tehran’s plans to work with uranium metal in the coming months would have a similar consequence if pursued.

On the US side, a full return to JCPOA compliance would also be challenging. US sanctions on Iran are complex, and include extensive restrictions on financial transactions with Iran which would probably not be removed under a return to the JCPOA as they are not directly linked to Iran’s nuclear activities. This complexity, coupled with the possibility of rapid re-imposition of sanctions in future crises means that the private sector will remain wary of Iran-linked business after nuclear-related sanctions are removed, and substantial practical benefit to Iran would therefore take time to emerge.

Building Blocks

As part of an ongoing project, Iranian Nuclear Pathways, the authors have conducted research into the key factors that will drive the future nature of the Iranian nuclear programme, such as: the status of international agreements on the Iranian nuclear programme and diplomatic engagements aimed at achieving them; the degree to which Iranian political discourse and decision-making tends towards cooperation with the US and the UK, France and Germany and with international organisations on the nuclear matter; the threat perceptions of governments in the Middle East, including Iran; and the state of other nuclear programmes in the Middle East.

The UK’s Added Value

Each of these factors need to be addressed in some way, and on each of them the UK has something to offer. Having a new US president receptive to British concerns and priorities has triggered a sense of relief in London, which naturally prefers coordination with Washington to misalignment. But this should not then translate into passivity, either out of a fear of cutting across US priorities or out of an expectation that the US can effectively lead the diplomatic initiative across these issues.

The UK needs a more proactive approach to Iran, driven by greater ministerial attention and initiative. This would increase the perception of key Middle Eastern states that the UK is a relevant diplomatic player. This, in turn, would give the UK more credibility in Washington and make it a more valuable partner to the new administration. Crucially,  it would also insure London against a possible future, in four or more years, where the US approach to Iran and the wider region once again differs from that of the UK.

The centrepiece of the UK’s approach should be a stronger and more publicly-articulated Middle East and North Africa (MENA) strategy, which – to signal the level of importance that the UK places on its role in the region – should be outlined in a major speech by the Foreign Secretary. This would provide a foundation for strengthened regional engagement, allowing it to act as a guarantor between the conflicting sides in the MENA region, and a convenor or co-convenor of discussions on a regional security framework.

This is particularly important given the consensus, in both Washington and European capitals, on the need to reach an agreement with Tehran that goes beyond the nuclear issue, even if and when compliance under the JCPOA is resumed. The UK is particularly well placed for this role given its ties with several of the countries in the region, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. London is also aware of the need to integrate the concerns and priorities of regional countries in any future negotiations with Iran, as this is the only way for regional tensions and threat perceptions to decrease.

In parallel with this activity, the UK can more directly influence Iranian decision-making by engaging in Track II dialogues (which would best draw on those UK officials and political figures involved in past negotiations, in 2003 and the early 2010s) and by using its diplomatic presence in Tehran. It can act as a bridge between Iran and the US in conveying what precisely Tehran hopes to get out of its negotiations with Washington on the one hand, and in helping to convince Tehran of US good faith on the other, thus facilitating better diplomatic engagement between the two sides.

London should also reprise its traditional role as a bridge between the E3 (the format through which the UK, together with France and Germany, has been engaging with Iran since 2003) and the US. Continuing to invest in the E3-led mechanisms advanced, but not yet refined, over the past four years – be it INSTEX or de-dollarisation – would signal its distinct position from the US, and would contribute to maintaining a historically effective partnership with key European allies.

The temptation for UK ministers, occupied with the aftermath of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic response, will be to allow the US to lead the UK into a relatively passive supporting role. This is understandable but stores up trouble for the future. Given the domestic political debate on Iranian nuclear issues in the US, the fundamental complexity of the issue and the strong UK national interest in maintaining both a strong nuclear non-proliferation regime and a more stable MENA region, the UK cannot afford to be anything other than energetic and proactive.

If London sits back, it will fail to shape the tools which will allow it to endure any possible future period of misalignment with Washington and it will be wasting its potential to be a genuinely positive player on the Iranian nuclear issue and MENA security more broadly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi

Senior Research Fellow

International Security Studies

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Darya Dolzikova​

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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Tom Plant

Director, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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