Biden’s Foreign Policy towards Iran: A Centrist Approach between the Hawks and the Doves

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Iran must move first to restart the nuclear deal, while Iran says America must remove sanctions first. The point should be considered is that for almost all Republicans and some Democrats, the JCPOA was and is viewed as a bad deal. There are several problematic areas within the text, and many do not like the sunset clause. Given that Blinken is the new Secretary of State, he has the leeway to approach this issue with a fresh set of eyes, so he will not feel overly bound by what his predecessors put in place. Having said that, many Americans do not realize the extent of the debate and divisions within Iran over the JCPOA, so, if a new agreement is to succeed, both sides will want additional guarantees. 

Arguably, the Trump administration had some success with the “maximum pressure” policy. While it is difficult to disentangle exactly what factors led to Iran’s economic downturn in 2018 and 2019, there is some evidence that it is sanctions based. Of course, Covid-19 has complicated metrics to measure economic output, and “maximum pressure” did not lead to widespread reform within Iran’s political system (at least viewed from the West). Biden’s administration can use the topic of sanctions to push towards a better JCPOA.   

However, there is a serious question here, which asks “is the JCPOA renegotiable as some Western nuclear deal parties are talking of restricting Iran’s missile capability despite the fact that Tehran has clearly announced that it won’t accept negotiations over its conventional defensive and deterrent capabilities?” My sense is no. It might just be too difficult to find enough common ground for a new deal. Many Iranians are unhappy with the US decertification and later withdrawal from the JCPOA, and many in the United States are concerned with several elements of the deal. Other members of the P5+1 will likely continue to support the JCPOA, so it may be possible to rework some areas of the agreement, but I am not sure that the political will exist at this time. The one redeeming issue, though, is that since the New START treaty with Russia was just extended for five years, there may be some momentum on nuclear issues.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel try to hinder the revival of the JCPOA or at least make it more difficult. I think they possibly can achieve their goals in the Biden administration. President Biden has already tried to change tactics, especially with the Palestinians. However, Saudi Arabia and Israel are two longtime allies of the United States, so he will have to think carefully about upsetting both governments. 

Some scholars argue that the U.S. and Israel will agree to make West Asia a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ), but I don’t think so. Israel’s policy of non-disclosure regarding nuclear weapons goes back to the 1960s. I do not anticipate a shift in this policy. Of course, if Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz or Gideon Moshe Sa’ar or Naftali Bennett becomes the next Prime Minister of Israel following the March election, every policy will be reviewed, but I do not see any wholesale changes on nuclear weapons and security policies. 

In general, Biden has sought political centrists in key positions of his diplomatic team, especially Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. This is a very intriguing tactic because while many Republicans will be critical of Biden’s administration, he does not want to be seen as soft on foreign policy issues. It is unlikely that Biden’s administration will be too “hawkish,” but I also do not expect an overly “dovish” approach either. In sum, Biden’s foreign policy will likely be a little softer than Trump’s, but not too much. 

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