After moving into the White House late next month, one of President-elect Joe Biden’s top foreign-policy priorities will be reestablishing the relationships and agreements with other countries that Donald Trump has torn to pieces over the past four years. Chief among these is the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. This, to say the least, will not be an easy task.
On November 27, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in an ambush while driving through a town outside Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel for the assassination, which it has since alleged used AI and facial-recognition technology to kill the scientist remotely in his vehicle (experts dispute these claims). Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility, but given that nobody else has both the motive and means to carry out a strike like this, and that Fakhrizadeh has been in Mossad’s crosshairs for years, there is little doubt that Iran’s accusation is correct.
The notion, widely promulgated in American media, that Israel assassinated Fakhrizadeh for the express purpose of hamstringing Biden probably gives too much credit to the U.S. as a driving force in Israel’s Iran strategy. An operation this sensitive would take months to plan, and Israel had plenty of reasons to want Fakhrizadeh dead regardless of who is in the White House, so the decision to take out the scientist was likely made well before the U.S. election. Yet while the presidential transition was probably not the rationale for the assassination, it may have played a role in its timing. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly working to land as many blows as possible against the Iranian regime and its nuclear program while Trump is still president. The Israelis would not make such a provocative move without at least tacit support from Washington — something they would not be guaranteed six weeks from now.
And even if the operation wasn’t expressly designed to limit Biden’s options, the fact that it does is more than just gravy for Netanyahu. Biden has signaled that he intends to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), offering Iran “compliance for compliance” — that is, the U.S. will rejoin the agreement and lift sanctions if Iran resumes upholding its end of the bargain. Biden hopes to make that the basis for follow-on negotiations about other unresolved issues like Iran’s missile program, but Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said Iran will not negotiate further unless the U.S. first rejoins the JCPOA unconditionally.
Netanyahu and his allies in the Israeli security Establishment, for their part, think Biden does not understand how the Middle East has changed in the past five years and is naïvely preparing to rejoin a deal that doesn’t address the real threat Iran poses to U.S. allies and interests in the region. (Of course, they didn’t think the original deal addressed the threat five years ago, either.) Netanyahu will do anything he can to prevent the resurrection of the nuclear deal. If Biden is determined to once again offer compliance for compliance, Israel’s only other option is to somehow stop Iran from accepting his offer — or provoke an escalation that invites a U.S. military response.
So far, Tehran has held off on any retaliation for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, even as Iranian leaders issue their usual canned statements swearing revenge. Days after the assassination, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it would install additional centrifuges at its underground nuclear plant at Natanz, of a type more advanced than what the JCPOA allowed. Iran had already breached several of the restrictions set on its nuclear activities in the deal after Trump withdrew, making this a minor but still provocative escalation in the breakdown of the agreement.
Most observers agree that a more forceful response is unlikely, either because Iran is desperate for relief from U.S. sanctions and won’t do anything to jeopardize the possibility, or simply because the regime knows that escalating hostilities isn’t in the country’s best interests at this point. (On top of Iran’s ongoing economic crisis, no country in the Middle East has been hit harder by COVID-19.) If Iran does retaliate violently for Fakhrizadeh’s death, it would make the most sense to do so in a limited way during the final days of our interregnum, when a U.S. response would be most difficult to organize.
Iran is having presidential elections of its own in June, and while President Hassan Rouhani is term limited, his moderate, pro-democracy allies are struggling to keep the government from falling into the hands of hard-line conservatives, who won a majority in Parliament in low-turnout elections in February. In response to Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, the Iranian Parliament passed legislation last week to immediately increase uranium enrichment to levels well above the levels set in the JCPOA, as well as to suspend U.N. nuclear inspections in February unless sanctions are lifted on Iranian oil and banking. Rouhani may be able to avoid enforcing that deadline, but it still puts additional political pressure on him and will make any forthcoming negotiations more challenging.
Turnout is expected to remain low this coming June, so for the moderates to win, they need a strong candidate (Zarif, the foreign minister, has been talked up as a possibility, though he has said he does not intend to run) and some major achievement to point to that would drive voters to the polls. Biden’s election has driven up hopes among Iranian moderates that a new deal with the U.S. and sanctions relief are in the offing; the country has begun planning to ramp up oil production in anticipation of being able to export again. Sealing the deal with Biden before June’s election is really the only thing Rouhani can do to improve his faction’s chances of winning.
Yet if a deal might enable the moderates to hold the presidency, it is not a guarantee — Biden could reset relations and ease sanctions, only to soon find himself up against a united, revanchist anti-American Iranian government anyway. On the other hand, failure to make a deal will almost certainly result in defeat for the pro-negotiation faction. Iran hawks and Iranian hawks alike therefore have a strong incentive to prevent Biden from achieving détente with Tehran during his first five months in office.
That’s all assuming Trump doesn’t launch a military strike on Iran during the waning days of his presidency as part of his scorched-earth exit from the White House. Having already reportedly considered that option and been talked out of it last month, it seems unlikely that the lame duck will change his mind at this point, considering that his mind is entirely consumed with promulgating the myth that the U.S. election was stolen from him. Though Trump ordered an extrajudicial military strike that killed top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last January, he was never very eager to go to war with Iran. Trump’s preferred plan was always more along the lines of: “We’re gonna have a big, beautiful regime change, and Iran’s gonna pay for it” (or Israel, or Saudi Arabia, or whoever). The Trump administration did, however, impose new sanctions on Iran last month, and may announce more before leaving office, continuing its “maximum pressure” strategy and preemptively undermining Biden’s efforts to restart diplomacy.
Opponents of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran have succeeded at ensuring that the Biden administration will inherit a daunting diplomatic crisis from which it will need to dig itself out before taking any positive steps. Biden and his foreign-policy team, which includes some of the architects of the JCPOA, will need to reengage Iran with eyes wide open to the scale of the challenge they face. The domestic and foreign pressure not to revive the nuclear deal — from the GOP, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere — will be enormous, and any political rewards for overcoming that opposition will likely be slim.
More important, while much of this antagonism toward Iran comes from a place of prejudice or bad faith, the Iran hawks are not entirely wrong about everything. The Middle East has changed since 2016. The conventional arms race between Iran and the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati coalition has escalated, thanks in part to Trump’s eagerness to sell advanced U.S. weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. That coalition has also consolidated as Sunni Arab states have moved toward normalizing relations with Israel. These countries are not worried about Iran building nuclear weapons because they expect Tehran to launch a suicidal first strike, but because it will make it harder for them to combat conventional threats from Iran and its regional proxies.
Throttling Iran’s nuclear program without addressing its advanced missile development and efforts at proliferation won’t satisfy our Middle Eastern allies or defuse regional conflicts, and getting Iran to give up its missiles won’t be any easier in 2021 than it was in 2015. A return to the Obama administration’s diplomatic peacemaking approach to the Iranian conflict will be a welcome change from Trump’s loud but mostly empty threats. If Biden rehashes a carbon copy of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East, however, that might be a serious mistake. He will need to chart his own revised course in the region — and he shouldn’t expect anyone to lift a finger to make it easier for him.