New administrations in Washington have a tendency to blame foreign-policy failures more on their predecessors than on America’s adversaries. This was evident in President-elect Joe Biden’s repeated campaign criticism of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, and Biden’s pledges to rejoin the agreement “if Iran returns to strict compliance.” Weeks before the election, Biden wrote that “by any objective measure, Trump's ‘maximum pressure’ has been a boon to the regime in Iran and a bust for America's interests.”
If Biden truly wants to return to diplomacy, reverse the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, and achieve the best possible outcome for the United States, ordinary Iranians, and the broader Middle East, he should understand that time is not on Iran’s side. The regime is unstable and the national currency is in a free-fall. Much of the region stands united against the ayatollahs. The United States can afford to wait, and it can use Iran’s own bargaining style to advance its interests by pushing Iranian leaders to make the first move.
It is worth discussing the usefulness of Trump’s so-called maximum pressure policy, with its sanctions and its strictures on every aspect of the Iranian regime. But Biden is wrong to suggest that it has been a boon to Tehran. Within weeks of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the rial, Iran’s currency, had lost half its value, and Iran’s economy sank. It is true that Iran’s leaders have survived in the short term, using every measure at their disposal to do so. They rule over a large country with a relatively diverse economy, and a vibrant domestic market has enabled the Islamic Republic to weather this round of punishing pressure. The long-term outlook, however, is very different.
The extended recession exposes the regime to yet more domestic unrest and discontent. Before a devastating COVID-19 outbreak in Iran that has reportedly resulted in more than 40,000 deaths (and likely many more), demonstrations around the country were decrying the corruption and illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic. There is a limit to the regime’s ability to manage instability through coercion and oppression, given the human and financial price such a posture exacts. In the same way that a tourniquet is applied to stem a massive bleed, it might buy time, but it is not enough to save the patient’s life. While they temporarily slowed the bleeding, Iranian leaders bet that the more congenial Joe Biden would reverse sanctions and allow them to avoid a choice between a change of policy or the country’s collapse.
Signaling that things may not be as simple as the president-elect hopes, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reacted to the election results by calling on Biden to “compensate [for the] past mistakes” made by the Trump administration. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also ruled out any changes to the nuclear deal.
Dating back to the Obama administration, the logic of U.S. engagement with Tehran has sprung from the belief that dealing with Iran and providing sanctions relief might help reformers in their struggle against Iranian hardliners. Biden’s team too may justify renewed engagement in the belief that they can bolster reformist voices before Iranians go to the polls in May 2021.
This misunderstands a critical fact about Iran: Politicians are subordinate to unelected security and religious figures inside the regime. A reformist president might negotiate and even sign an agreement, but neither he nor the foreign minister have any say in the behavior of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Supreme Leader. The only faction with the authority to negotiate and implement a deal is the very hardline faction that U.S. diplomats have tried to ignore for so long.
The Iranian leadership gambled on a Biden victory, avoiding any serious dialogue with the Trump administration or concessions on the troubling sunset clauses of the deal. They believed the president-elect would best ensure their regime’s survival without requiring key compromises. True strategic diplomacy requires silence and distance at times. If Biden simply decides that he should stand aloof and wait for the Iranians to act first, he might find that the regime’s ability to withstand maximum pressure is incredibly short, and the diplomatic options then open to him would be far greater than even he or his aides now imagine.
Wang Xiyue is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University and an incoming Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He was imprisoned in Iran from August 7, 2016, to December 7, 2019.