Back to the Drawing Board on Iran

Shifting course to a better policy is more critical than ever in the wake of Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal.

It’s always hard to admit when you’re wrong—this is true for the Biden administration’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan as well as its flawed approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Starting in April, Washington participated in six rounds of indirect negotiations to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to no avail. The election of ultra-hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran means either that the clerical regime is focused on exploiting Washington’s propensity for appeasement, or that it is utterly disinterested in diplomacy and welcomes confrontation. “This process cannot go on indefinitely,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July, a view apparently shared by America’s European allies. The secretary, at least on this point, is correct.

As Iran prods for more concessions and hard limits against its overreach, the Biden administration should signal that there are costs for continuing a path of intransigence and escalation. Doing so will require a renewed U.S. pressure track against Tehran: robust economic penalties backed by a credible military deterrent. 

Shifting course to a better Iran policy is more critical than ever in the wake of Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, as Tehran and other adversaries will exploit the U.S. power vacuum. This will be bitter medicine for a president and administration that have routinely denigrated the Trump administration’s Iran sanctions campaign. On August 13, however, the administration employed enhanced U.S. counterterrorism powers to designate an oil smuggling scheme benefiting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign operations unit. According to the Treasury Department, the network helped Tehran sell oil illicitly, including to “buyers in East Asia”—mainly code for China

As a one-off, such measures are too little, too late. Politically, however, they have the potential to serve as the birth pangs of a new pressure policy and replace Biden’s current “concede first” approach. 

The administration has already made numerous direct and indirect concessions to Iran. These include dealing separately with Iran’s nuclear and regional threats, removing Yemeni rebels that Iran materially supports from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, delisting Iranian oil executives, failing to promptly respond to Iran-backed escalation in Iraq, not enforcing oil penalties as China imports record-high volumes of Iranian crude, not holding Iran accountable at the United Nations nuclear watchdog for safeguards infractions, and issuing waivers to permit Iran to pay debts to Japanese and South Korean companies using Tehran’s frozen funds. Iran has pocketed each and every concession without a hint of reciprocity or moderation.

This summer, the regime stepped up provocations, attempting to hijack a vessel in the Persian Gulf and attacking an Israeli-owned tanker with drones, which killed two Europeans. The U.S., U.K., and G7 issued statements, but have yet to deliver a promised “collective response” to the strike. 

To stem such behavior and drive a better bargain, Washington must course-correct. 

First, U.S. officials must disabuse themselves of the notion that they need to regain Iran’s “trust.” As former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord in 2017, “the deal is based on lack of trust, no part of this deal is built on confidence.” Mistrust of America and the West are deep-seated in Iran’s supreme leader, who also never saw the nuclear deal as transformational. The outsized factor getting Tehran to negotiate in the past was the prospect of sanctions relief, not faith in America. 

Moreover, history has shown that the Islamic Republic does respond to pressure, albeit belatedly and begrudgingly. Managing Iran’s new ultra-hardline elites, who will offer less in exchange for more—if they decide to negotiate at all—will require coercion.

Second, the United States should amend the “go-it-alone approach” of the Trump administration and multilateralize the pressure campaign it inherited. Despite being unable to curtail the reach of restored American sanctions on Iran after Trump’s exit from the JCPOA in 2018, Europe’s commitment to the nuclear deal meant that, in practice, allies like France, Germany, and the U.K. were politically on the side of adversaries like Iran, Russia, and China, waiting out the Trump presidency and policies. 

To get Europe involved, Washington must inform France, Germany, and the U.K. it is jettisoning the notion of reviving the expiring JCPOA. Sustained U.S. diplomacy should instead unite the allies behind a coordinated campaign to counter Iran’s escalatory measures: acts of maritime harassment, cyberattacks, human rights abuses, the nuclear and missile programs, support for terrorism, and fomenting of regional instability. 

On the nuclear front, Biden must rebuild the transatlantic consensus on stopping Iran’s atomic program that existed before the JCPOA, which resulted in several rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions. In so doing, the administration can build on past attempts to create supplementary terms for an improved accord as a baseline from which to draft the contours of a better deal. Resurrecting these terms and adjusting them to take into account Iran’s new nuclear advances would put Washington and Europe on the same page about replacing the JCPOA with something stronger.

Not all pressure need be economic. The immediate venue to present a united diplomatic front is the September Board of Governors meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is investigating Tehran’s safeguards breaches and attempting to restore lapsed monitoring over Iran’s expanding nuclear program. As of May, Iran had amassed enough enriched uranium to produce three nuclear weapons, deployed thousands of advanced centrifuges, and reduced the time required to make weapon-grade uranium to around two months. In April 2021, for the first time, Iran also began producing 60 percent enriched uranium, a short step from 90 percent, the ideal purity for nuclear weapons. In February, Tehran also began making uranium metal, a material used in the core of nuclear weapons, and significantly reduced IAEA monitoring. 

Washington and its partners should spearhead a new resolution censuring Iran at the upcoming IAEA meeting. If this approach does not bear fruit, America and Europe must elevate Iran’s nuclear file back to the U.N. Security Council. Even if Russia and China refuse to censure Iran, the U.S. and its allies can invoke the U.N. snapback mechanism to restore all prior sanctions resolutions against the Islamic Republic, effectively bypassing the Russian and Chinese veto. Contrary to UNSC Resolution 2231, which underpins the JCPOA, the previous resolutions identify Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to international peace and security, insist on Tehran’s suspension of uranium enrichment, and contain no lapsing provisions against Iranian arms transfers or ballistic missile tests. They would also deliver a fait accompli to Moscow and Beijing: multilateral penalties against the Islamic Republic which Russia and China previously agreed to.

Third, the Biden administration must prevent the Islamic Republic from overrunning the Middle East, where it is poised to capitalize on American indifference. Nearly four months have passed since leaked audio files came to light in which Zarif admitted that Iran routinely “sacrificed diplomacy for the battlefield.” If Washington is going to get serious about countering Iran, it needs to have a regional policy that understands Tehran’s center of gravity is its web of partners and proxies, which the regime terms the “Axis of Resistance.” Rolling back the gains of this network through sanctions, interdictions, denying terrain, adding political pressure, and even engaging in military strikes will be key to winning on the battlefields that Tehran has invested in so heavily.

This is particularly true in the heartland of the region, Iraq, where Washington has absorbed at least 27 rocket and drone strikes since January. The strikes emanate from Iran-backed militias, with a meager response ratio from Washington that indicates a preference to strike in Syria. America treats Syria as a free-fire zone, versus Iraq, where a response would have manifestly greater impact, but comes with greater risks.

The U.S. should also coordinate closely with Israel and the Arab states in the Persian Gulf on stemming and responding to Iranian attacks. Israeli and American intelligence officials have reportedly been in touch on developing contingencies and offsets should diplomacy fail. Washington should hold similar meetings with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, home to American bases and countries which serve on the frontlines of any potential conflict with Iran.

There are countless other areas that require greater American attention, such as the regime’s hostage diplomacy, assassination of dissidents, and foreign kidnapping plots. America must also not miss the opportunity to better align its ideals and interests and support the Iranian population when it takes to the streets.

Despite more than six months of Washington turning the other cheek, Tehran remains defiant, in violation of its nuclear obligations, and continues to arm and equip terror and proxy groups who strike American and allied targets. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ oft-cited quote, “The enemy gets a vote,” remains instructive. Tehran is unlikely to ditch its penchant for escalation and extortion so long as it yields results. In a sense, the Islamic Republic of Iran has voted. It’s time the administration admits that its Iran policy is not working, but it can still be salvaged.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. They contribute to FDD’s Iran program and have jointly written on Iran’s nuclear program and nonproliferation issues in the Middle East.