The Trump administration’s current policy on Iran has largely been a lost opportunity, as US sanctions against the country have failed to force Tehran into submission. The next US administration will therefore need to re‑assess its options.
This paper discusses the potential future pathways of the Iranian question in light of the US elections in November 2020 and with regard to Tehran’s relations with the USA and the regional and international communities.
Potential pathways in future US–Iran relations
The USA has managed tensions with Iran in the Gulf region cautiously over the last two years, and Iran has also tried to avoid escalation. Nevertheless, the situation remains extremely sensitive, since there is still a real possibility that a minor confrontation could lead to a wider conflict. Although the US sanctions policy – part of its “maximum pressure” campaign – has successfully crippled the Iranian economy, it has not provided a comprehensive solution for the Iran issue; the Trump administration has seen internal disagreement over whether the policy’s end goal is to attempt to topple the regime or to pressurize Tehran to return to the negotiating table with Washington.
Perhaps all that the Trump administration can do in the remainder of its first term is prevent the collapse of the maximum pressure campaign or the system of sanctions imposed against Iran. In recent weeks, the US Government has tried to push the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to declare that Iran has violated its nuclear obligation, but leaning on the organization will probably not lead to a substantial change in Tehran’s policies. The vote by the IAEA Board of Governors on June 19, 2020 was obviously designed to keep Iran as an international security priority, but it also clearly demonstrated that Russia and China will obstruct any international effort led by Washington to exert further pressure on Iran, and that the Europeans will continue to buy time for Iran until President Trump leaves the White House or until he changes tack on the Iranian question.
The Europeans have no confidence in Trump’s policy towards Iran, yet they see real risks in Iran’s nuclear program and are determined to prevent the country obtaining nuclear weapons. This was their motivation for voting against Tehran at the IAEA Board meeting, but they will probably not vote that way again if Washington puts the issue to the vote at the United Nations Security Council. The Europeans have so far refused to agree to Washington’s request to extend the arms embargo on Iran, which ends on October 18, 2020. The USA’s insistence on extending the embargo indicates its lack of good alternatives for putting further pressure on Tehran.
As this brief overview shows, the Iran issue as an international security matter is controversial, highly fluid, and connected to the agendas and priorities of competing world powers. In light of all that, it can be said that Iran has before it three different pathways with respect to its relations with the USA and the international and regional communities: reaching an international solution through comprehensive negotiations with the USA, which in turn is two‑pronged, since it depends on who wins the upcoming US presidential elections; reaching a regional solution reached through regional negotiations under international supervision; and lastly, attempting to make a breakthrough in its relations with neighboring Arab States to reduce regional tension through bilateralism.
1. International solution reached through comprehensive negotiations with the USA
a. If Trump wins the November 2020 elections
If Trump is re-elected for a second term, the Iranian question will likely proceed along the following lines:
First, the current approach continues unchanged, since maintaining the sanctions against Iran entails no domestic political cost for Trump. The Iran issue thus becomes a prolonged crisis, and the country gradually turns into a failed State in the same way as Venezuela. This scenario, however, hinges heavily on Tehran’s response; if Iran escalates or attempts to gain possession of a nuclear bomb, Washington’s inertia will prove extremely politically damaging to the USA and its allies.
Second, Trump may relaunch talks with Iran, which Tehran might accept, as long as they are not just a “photo opportunity”, to quote Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani had said that if Washington lifted the sanctions against his country and offered an “apology”, a new round of talks could begin. In reality, Tehran may be far less content if Trump is re-elected because its other options would be reduced.
Trump could return to the French proposal to extend a US$15 billion credit line to Iran, which was almost agreed on in September 2019 and would have enabled Iran to sell 500,000–750,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for halting the expansion of its nuclear program. If the French initiative is revived, modest concession such as this could pave the way for the start of fresh talks between Tehran and Washington.
Third, it is possible – although not probable – that tension with Iran could escalate into a military confrontation. If Trump returns to the White House, he will no longer need to give such importance to the Iran issue and the anti-Tehran groups that supported his election. He knows that his domestic political base does not want the USA to get mixed up in a new military conflict in the Middle East. In fact, many Republican foreign‑policy hardliners predict that if Trump is re-elected for a second term, he will concentrate more on domestic issues such as rebuilding US infrastructure.
Trump wants to leave a presidential legacy that does not include military intervention around the world. This is evident not only in the Middle East, but also in his plans to reduce the number of US forces abroad, including in Afghanistan, South Korea, and Germany. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow are determined to scupper Washington’s plans regarding Tehran; their actions are not just about Iran, but about destroying the USA’s global image and its standing as an independent superpower.
There are therefore several factors to suggest that it is unlikely that Trump would make strenuous efforts to seek a solution to the crisis with Iran during his second term:
b. If Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden wins the elections
Joe Biden is intentionally ambiguous about what to do about Iran. He knows that his party’s electoral base wants Washington to return to the nuclear plan with Iran, but at the same time he wants to court the same powerful interest groups that supported Trump in the 2016 elections. For example, Biden was the only Democrat candidate to attend the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an Israeli lobby group.
In fact, there is a major political battle playing out between Biden’s original supporters and Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who represent the party’s left-wing and are now trying to shape Democrat policy towards Iran. Some of Biden’s senior backers and advisers, such as Tony Blinken, are close to AIPAC and will want to continue exerting pressure on Iran. Blinken actually said that, as president, Biden would maintain Trump’s sanctions against Iran in the hope that Tehran would conclude a new agreement with Washington.
Left-wing Democrats, including the Sanderistas, want a fundamental return to Barack Obama’s approach to Iran, in which the contentious issues are dealt with separately while prioritizing two elements: lifting the sanctions against Iran so that it can return to compliance with the conditions of the 2015 nuclear plan, and only then broadening dialogue with the country to include all its other activities of concern to the USA and its regional allies. The bottom line is that there is huge disagreement within the Democratic Party about how to deal with Iran. This is perhaps why Biden’s campaign has been reluctant to make the matter a key election issue, as raising it would highlight the differences within the party.
2. Regional solution reached through internationally supervised regional negotiations
Tehran has always promoted the idea of dialogue with its neighbors and regional cooperation, but these efforts have been fruitless for two main reasons: most neighboring States distrust Tehran, and there is no world power willing to guarantee any regional dialogue between Iran and its neighbors. Without a shadow of a doubt, Tehran genuinely wants to de-escalate tensions with neighboring States, at least in the short term. The Iranian regime believes that, in regional terms, time is on its side, as mounting popular demands and pressure will continue to lead to radical political transformation in the Middle East, which generally serves the interests of political Islamist groups close to Tehran.
Nevertheless, in the short term, Iran feels that it needs to break out of its regional isolation and try to reach an agreement with key States in the region, especially those in the Gulf. To that end, Tehran recently launched a regional peace plan, the Hormuz Peace Initiative. The focus on the Gulf States is perhaps quite understandable, since Tehran considers them to be at the vanguard of the forces that are supporting international pressure on Iran. Consequently, de-escalating the situation with the Gulf States would equate to reducing the pressure on Tehran from the USA and the rest of the international community.
Given the distrust that continues to dominate Iran’s relationship with its main regional rivals, however, the existing Cold War environment is unlikely to be reversed unless a powerful third party can provide assurances of a breakthrough in relations between Iran and its neighbors. While bilateral efforts could achieve such a breakthrough (although no radical political solutions are likely to be proposed), a political solution will require progress at the regional level. This calls for greater regional impetus, and should preferably be done with the support of a prominent global power, which could realistically be the USA, given the lack of alternatives.
Should Biden win, his administration may want to test this Iranian proposal for reducing regional tensions, and Washington may be prepared to provide assurances in this regard. According to policy papers prepared by analysts close to Biden’s Washington team, coexistence with Iran must be accepted quickly and cannot rest solely on a nuclear deal; a comprehensive settlement is needed, including regional de-escalation. The recommendations include a swift return by the President to the 2015 nuclear plan and the immediate initiation of a wider dialogue with Tehran, as any new settlement with Tehran cannot merely be limited to the number of centrifuges that Iran is allowed to operate or the range of its ballistic missiles. On that basis, and in order to broaden discussions to de-escalate the regional situation, Tehran and Washington must rapidly find a suitable negotiating mechanism, and must begin the process afresh to ensure that Iran’s neighbors are on board.
If Biden takes this route, the Europeans will probably support him, whereas Russia and China will attempt to frustrate the process. China has no desire to become a “peacebuilding” force in the Middle East, while Russia’s efforts are still very much based on the old Soviet regional security architecture, which has not been updated in any sense. Consequently, the lack of an alternative could give greater momentum to Biden’s US-led efforts to reduce tensions in the Middle East.
3. Bilateralism to achieve breakthroughs in relations with neighboring Arab States
Tehran has always tried to make headway in its bilateral relations with its neighbors by choice and not under duress. Azerbaijan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Pakistan are among the neighboring States that have normalized their relations with Iran. At the moment, Tehran appears to have a clear appetite for candid bilateral negotiations with its Gulf neighbors, but it is becoming more cautious and more hesitant when proposing shared pathways.
Although US-backed regional efforts could be made to reduce tensions with the Arab Gulf States, Tehran would still prefer to engage with its neighbors on a bilateral basis. This is most evident in how the Iranian regime handles its multifaceted relations with Oman.
Between Trump and Biden: Where next for the Iranian issue?
As ever, the starting point is the degree to which Washington allows regional States to push its Middle East policy in one direction or another. Clearly, the Trump administration has been politically very receptive to the pressure tactics employed by Iran’s main regional adversaries, and to the concept of destroying Iran’s capacities as much as possible; yet, even in this area, the administration is only willing to go so far. Trump was open to confrontation with Iran, as long as it was restricted to the imposition of economic sanctions and a small number of limited military strikes (such as the assassination of Qasem Soleimani). However, he has never exhibited any interest in engaging in a full‑blown war with Iran, and he has not seriously pushed for the formation of a regional bloc against the country. This equation is unlikely to change if he is re-elected for a second term.
Trump probably wants to move towards a new, very limited policy on Iran, since he and his inner circle lack the requisite foreign policy background, expertise, interest, and patience to engage in a multilevel, multifrontal effort to reach a new, regionally led agreement with Iran, or even to provide political support for such an agreement.
Furthermore, the Trump administration lacks the intellectual clarity or depth to know what to do about Iran or how to do it, since any policy aimed at de-escalation and possibly reaching a regional agreement requires several of the following key elements:
The idea of developing a “strategic vision” for the Middle East is perhaps unrealistic while Trump is in the White House. The States in the region therefore have nothing to support or reject, and so things will remain as they are. Meanwhile, the Europeans are divided as to the development of a “strategic vision” for the Middle East. Beijing and Russia do not really have anything to sabotage while Trump is president, and neither one has shown itself capable of creating an initiative that could guarantee a different future for the region. Consequently, without a plan, there is no chance of dispelling the tension in the region.
However, if Biden gets into the White House, he may change all of the above factors:
In accordance with this gradual approach, Iran and other States in the region would essentially engage in a steady interim process of de-escalation. Iran would not renounce its ideological hostility toward the Jewish State, but it could agree to other concessions, such as reducing its military forces in Syria, allowing monitoring of supply operations, and identifying its sites from which it can deploy missiles and other Iranian military equipment that Israel finds threatening. In exchange, the Iranians would ask Israel to accept the US‑brokered regional de‑escalation or to make other concessions.
Lastly, we must remember that the world has entered a new phase of multi-polarity. In the first phase, US policy under Biden may move towards preventing Russia and China from expanding further in the Middle East, which would give the USA stronger justification to seek out ways to develop a regional agreement. If there is no regional de-escalation, the Russians and the Chinese will be freer to fill the security vacuums created by continued regional competition. With the right administration and political agenda, and if Biden has the appetite for making his country an “interventionist” liberal democratic power once again, the USA could ensure that Russia and China cannot exploit the crisis surrounding Iran in order to further their agendas in the Middle East. Whether under the steam of the USA, Iran, Israel, or the States of the Gulf Cooperation Council, there is a clear need to begin developing a vision aimed at de‑escalation, which is still very much absent today. This process for initiating dialogue, in whatever form, requires priority‑sequencing, including confidence‑building measures, by all parties – whether regional or international – involved in the process.
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