Nov 23, 2020
The 2020 U.S. presidential election saw unprecedented voter turnout and continues to be an unparalleled challenge to America's customary peaceful transition of power. The distinctive nature of this election is the culmination of divisions in American society and the stark contrast in the visions that these two candidates have articulated. The solid victory of President-elect Biden -- who currently holds a nearly six million vote lead -- confirms the discontent that the majority of Americans share for the Trump administration. From sowing discord within the country and isolating the United States on the global stage, the Trump presidency's "America First" policy has ultimately displayed the fragility of American power and democracy.
Of the many miscarriages of this administration, its policy on Iran is most emblematic of its overall failure. An incoming Biden administration will need to address these failures. However, to do so, Biden must be careful to distinguish himself from his predecessor from day one. Recent comments by Senator Chris Coons, who stated he would support a return to the Iran deal with "caveats," is precisely the language that Biden should avoid, as it legitimates the disastrous policies of the Trump administration.
Americans may have voted, but the world has repudiated the Trump presidency for its inhumanity, antagonism, and disdain for cooperation, all of which were illustrated in his failed Iran policy.
Trump made the imprudent decision to end U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal, and institute a policy of brutal sanctions to bring the Iranian government to its knees. Instead, those in power in Iran remain unscathed, while Iranian masses suffer under an economic crisis and the catastrophe of a pandemic. Showing no humanity, this administration -- led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- has only increased its hostile rhetoric and doubled down on its merciless Iran policy. While Pompeo claims to stand with the Iranian people, his State Department unleashed what he said would become "the strongest sanctions in history, when we are complete," a policy that has continued unabated despite international calls for relief during a global pandemic.
Pompeo argues that "maximum pressure" has been an effective policy, but by what measure? Pompeo himself cites the dire conditions of Iran's economy as a sign of success. While President Trump has stated his objective is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But we learned last week that he was considering military options as Iran's nuclear program has expanded well beyond the limits imposed by the nuclear deal. If curbing Iran's nuclear program was the intention of "max pressure," it is clearly a resounding failure. For Iran hawks that have pushed Trump further down this path, their ambition of regime change is also a failure, as the Iranian government shows no indication of collapse.
That it is difficult to even ascertain what the goal of this administration's Iran policy was, or is, exemplifies the incoherence of Trump's whole presidency. Now, in their waning days, Pompeo has promised even more sanctions, using every tool at his disposal to make it more difficult for a future Biden administration to return to diplomacy, despite the fact that the majority of Americans have long favored diplomatic solutions with Iran.
Despite the musings of some Washington think tankers and pundits who would have us believe that a Biden administration will not be able to simply undo the damage of the Trump administration, the path to diplomacy is open. However, in order to repair the harm done by Trump, Biden will have to move quickly and resolutely.
President-elect Biden's stance on the Iran deal was clear when he called Trump's decision to withdraw a mistake and presciently noted that unilaterally exiting would isolate the United States, not Iran. Biden lambasted Trump's Iran policy as a failure that had made the world less secure, tarnished America's global reputation, and not delivered on any of its stated objectives. He indicated that as president he would return to the deal.
For the reasons that Biden himself has laid out, it is imperative for his administration to make returning to the deal with Iran -- so that both nations return to compliance -- a top priority, as he has stated with other priorities such as rejoining the World Health Organization and reentering the Paris Climate Agreement. Anything short of an urgent return to the deal would give credence to an argument for using supposed leverage against Iran and, in turn, validate the policy of the Trump administration that he has spent years condemning.
Moreover, with elections in Iran set for June of 2021, Biden's window of opportunity may be short-lived if Iranians -- disillusioned by U.S. betrayal and still suffering under sanctions -- opt for a less engagement-friendly new administration. In contrast, the current Iranian administration has already called for Biden to return the deal. Unfortunately, the Trump administration's policies have in many ways offered proof of what Iranian hardliners have long argued: that the United States cannot be trusted. To rebuild trust, President-elect Biden must set aside the idea of adding more disputes to the critical issue of resuming diplomacy, as Senator Coons has suggested.
In a show of good faith, Biden should lift sanctions on Iran on humanitarian grounds in order to help them combat the pandemic. In turn, with sanctions lifted, Iran can return to compliance and once again adhere to the limits set forth in the deal. Any new negotiations to expand on the deal can take place from this starting point of mutual benefit.
Americans may have voted, but the world has repudiated the Trump presidency for its inhumanity, antagonism, and disdain for cooperation, all of which were illustrated in his failed Iran policy. In restoring the Iran deal, Biden can successfully correct the conflict-laden course he is inheriting from Trump, repair U.S. credibility, and prove once again that the administration he served as vice president was right to choose diplomacy.
© 2023 Responsible Statecraft
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