Main Image Credit The US Capitol Building. Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol
The incoming Biden administration will face a difficult challenge to quickly implement a new US policy toward Iran. The most effective path will be to work with those who agree, and engage those who disagree, to develop and reach their policy goals.
In looking at what factions in the US system might be key influencers, the starting point for a matter of such central importance is the National Security Council (NSC). President-elect Joe Biden has already laid out his goals for dealing with the nuclear issue with Iran in the short term, but will need to develop an implementation path quickly while concurrently building and staffing his administration’s structures. The NSC works at the discretion of the president and it is not yet known how Biden and Jake Sullivan, his named national security advisor, will approach it.
The Decision-Making Structure
There are two angles to approach the Iranian nuclear challenge, which roughly follow the decision-making structures within the Executive Branch. Will Iran be treated as a regional issue, managed by the Middle East team and the appropriate sub-regional directorate, with the nuclear issue as an area of focus? Or will it be seen as a nuclear non-proliferation issue, managed by a functional directorate? Obviously, US relations with Iran run deeper than just nuclear matters, but how all these will be managed, integrated and prioritised may change depending on the person running the interagency policy coordination process.
There is no doubt that Congress will play a key role, legally or politically, and this is not dependent on which party controls the Senate – something which will be decided by the January run-off election in Georgia. Objections to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – as the nuclear deal is officially known – and engagement with Iran more generally are shared on both sides of the political aisle. At the very least, Congress will need to be well informed by the administration and, ideally, key members will be consulted as the policy development process advances. If not, the president’s agenda may be difficult to implement.
Even if Congress is not required to formally weigh in on specific actions, the longer-term requirement for funding and the ability of Congress to enact ‘poison pill’ legislation that constrains Executive Branch action means that it will be part of the conversation in Washington. Going beyond any initial actions to return to the JCPOA as approved and lift/waive sanctions that are fully within the president’s authorities, the policy is bound to run into areas that require Congressional action. It will be helpful to engage the relevant caucuses early. These issues and regional caucuses comprise members who have already self-identified as interested in regional or nuclear issues. There are 535 members of Congress, and none have the bandwidth to pay attention to all issues in depth. The number of ‘loud voices’ will be smaller and central to future debates.
Caucuses and Interest Groups
There are a few key special interest areas – two will be mentioned here. It will be important to engage those who represent Israel (formally or informally). It is already apparent that the Israeli defence and security community may not be as helpful as it was in 2015 in recognising that, despite perceived flaws, the JCPOA was a net positive for security in the region. In that time period, though Israeli leadership was never supportive of the deal, there were strong voices from then-current and former senior members of the defence and security community who spoke publicly in favour of the JCPOA. In addition, those monitoring or representing Saudi Arabia will be watching this space carefully and engaging directly as the Iran policy evolves.
The expert non-governmental community in the US will likely play a key role in shaping public and, by extension, governmental perceptions of options for dealing with Iran. Again, this falls in the categories of those who follow the region versus nuclear non-proliferation. That said, there are divergent views on the ‘right’ approach to Iran, once you get past the first steps of returning to compliance by all parties of the JCPOA. Even before that, there are questions on how to best manage such a return. The NGO community in the US is not monolithic.
Finally, the media will remain a key influencer on both policy and perceptions of policy decisions or implementation success. We have already seen the negative effects of un- or ill-informed reporting. This has a disproportionate impact on Congress, in particular where members and staff must be prepared to address issues raised in the press, whether or not media reports stand up to scrutiny. It will remain important, as always, for journalists to expand their network of sources and remain vigilant to efforts to undermine policy.
Patience, and Juggling Stakeholders
Overall, the Biden administration may discover that options may be more limited than hoped, and patience – although uncomfortable – will be required. There are too many competing and conflicting areas of interest to be able to define a quick, successful path to resolving all policy issues with Iran in a way that will be acceptable to all. In addition, there is a near-universal view that we will not be able to ‘sit’ on a nuclear-only deal for long even though an early return to the JCPOA is likely to be the most expedient, and prerequisite, step before addressing other issues. At the same time as a return to and implementation of the JCPOA, the Biden team will need to be consulting on a plan to take substantive actions against Iranian destabilising activities in the region, support for terrorism and missile developments – going beyond where these matters were left at the end of the Obama administration.
Iran is still a credible ‘bad guy’ for a lot of people in the US, and – in many cases – for good reasons. That said, most are against a path that would lead to increased conflict or risk crisis escalation. While there will be a great appetite in the new administration to start setting this to rights, and President-elect Biden has indicated he will be willing to expend political capital and diplomatic effort, Iran is not at the top of the transition team’s immediate list of priorities. The urgent priorities, repeated in messaging about national security, are the coronavirus pandemic, the US economy and the climate.
The UK, along with France, Germany and the EU as a whole, will likely be asked early on to take an active role on the ‘non-nuclear’ Iran portfolio. This role could be positioned similarly to the early Trump administration years, when it was trying to save the JCPOA. This would reassure the US Congress and the regional states that Europe is not ignoring ‘malign activities’.
It will also be necessary to build a politically moderate constituency in the US and Europe for a JCPOA return leading to ‘JCPOA plus’. This is not likely to be popular in Iran, but could be achieved depending on sequencing and timing. It will require careful messaging and will need to include moderate Democrats, some Republicans, key issue constituencies in the US, experts up and down the political spectrum and E3 leaders. Finally, there may be value to beginning to talk about the long-term solution to nuclear issues in Iran being the development of nuclear energy policy for the Gulf as a whole.
The UK must play a central role in next steps to resolve the nuclear issue in Iran and increase regional security. It is a trusted agent for both ‘sides’. It is important that any resolution of Iran-related issues is high on talking points – early and often after Inauguration Day – with the Biden administration and Congressional leaders. Better and more regular consultation in the region and on Capitol Hill could reassure those leaders that their concerns are being addressed and acted on, even if not fully or exactly to their satisfaction.
While there may not be great appetite for engagement with Iran in the US, there is a keen interest in re-building the US’s alliance relationships. This is consistent with the UK’s historically central role with the US and will help both countries identify and achieve national security objectives that serve each country, individually, and both, collectively.
Corey Hinderstein is vice president for International Fuel Cycle Strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.