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THE IRAN PROJECT PART 4: BIDEN, RAISI, AND THE FUTURE OF US-IRANIAN RELATIONS

Marco Parks, Cameron Price, CENTCOM Team

Week of July 5, 2021


Ebrahim Raisi Registering at the Iranian Presidential Election[1]

With recent elections resulting in two new administrations in both the United States (US) and Iran, and a lack of progress in renegotiations over the 2015 nuclear deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one can argue that relations between the two countries could dramatically worsen. Under US President Joe Biden, the US is looking to move foreign policy priorities out of the Middle East and onwards to Asia to compete with China.[2] To achieve this policy shift, the US will have to address its current issues with Iran that are centered around its nuclear program. However, with the recent election of a hardliner president in Ebrahim Raisi, Iran is likely to return to a state of skepticism regarding international cooperation, further complicating diplomatic relations between it and the US. As a result, it will take a much more concerted effort from the Biden administration to agree with Iran over returning to compliance in the JCPOA. A failure to negotiate new terms on the nuclear deal could have cataclysmic implications on relations between the two countries, and the region as a whole. The US will likely be forced to maintain a strong presence in the region to deter and counter Iranian aggression, and a potential nuclear weapon, undermining the reasons for its current withdrawal in Afghanistan. Sanctions will almost certainly remain intact, further crippling the Iranian economy and detrimentally affecting the lives of Iranian citizens. It is also likely that a no-deal outcome will dramatically escalate tensions in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Iranian adversaries will likely feel increasingly threatened and insecure, paving the way for potential military confrontation.


The approach taken by each actor in the Biden-Iran relationship has been, and continues to be, dramatically influenced by the inimical Trump-Iran relationship. Former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA and reinstated economic sanctions on Iran. With what he called his “Maximum Pressure” campaign, Trump sought to compel Iran to renegotiate a more comprehensive JCPOA by using sanctions to suffocate Iran’s economy and prevent Iran from strengthening its military capabilities and its ability for intervention in the region. While this was the explicit reasoning for Trump’s change in US policy, these measures can be better understood by interpreting them within the Trump administration’s efforts to curb Iran’s influence and to weaken its ballistic missile program. The Trump administration likely imposed austere sanctions to create economic hardship for Iranian citizens to mobilize internal unrest; this predicted discord could have potentially led to regime change in Iran. Rather than achieving this, Iran’s hardliner base was bolstered. This was exemplified on June 18, 2021, by the Iranian presidential election of conservative Ebrahim Raisi with whom Biden must now negotiate in the context of former President Trump’s diplomatic reneging and economic pressure.


President Biden has been clear about his willingness to return to the JCPOA, hazarding a public offer of “compliance for compliance” to Iran’s leaders, referring to Iranian nuclear compliance and US economic compliance, in an op-ed during the presidential campaign.[3] While his intent and resolve seem to be strong given the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to return to the JCPOA, Biden faces many of the same problems that the Trump administration faced regarding Iranian leadership that has proven resistant to both disincentives and incentives to change its policies.[4] Moreover, Biden, like Trump, will likely have difficulties combating the common Iranian narrative of distrust toward the West and the hardliners’ use of diversionary tactics—diverting domestic attention to the perceived external threat of the US as a means of obfuscating the importance of domestic issues such as the economy and democratic freedoms.


President Biden now should do what former President Trump did not in the four years allotted to him: devise a strategy to overcome the diplomatic obstacles that Iran poses, marshal support from a broad international coalition, and deliver sustainable policy victory that is deemed acceptable among domestic and regional critics. He must do this while keeping Iran in its proper place of significance relative to US national security’s prioritization of threats emanating from China and Russia. Biden’s rhetoric and his withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan seems to indicate his ambitions to “pivot to Asia” and away from the Middle East which has been a massive quagmire for US foreign policy throughout the past two decades. Iran, and specifically its nuclear program, seems to be the most prominent concern that has kept the Biden administration’s focus on the region. From CTG’s analysis in “The Iran Project Part 3,” it is clear that success would be found neither in doubling down on pressure nor in “returning” to diplomacy, but in wielding those policy tools in concert in service of realistic goals featuring compromise and not being premised on a full Iranian acquiescence of its nuclear capabilities. This balanced form of engagement with Iran understands that there will be no quick or easy exit from the task of deterring Tehran or from American commitments in the Middle East. Attempting to balance these opposing two tools—pressure via sanctions and diplomacy—the US engaged in multilateral negotiations aimed at reviving the accord under President Biden’s direction earlier this year.[5] Yet, nearly half a year into Biden’s presidency and on the seventh round of talks in Vienna, the deal is not secured and the administration is likely beginning to doubt whether Iran truly intends to restore its compliance with the accord. This perception of doubt is likely influenced by Iran’s repeated breaches of the JCPOA during the talks and the recent election of President Raisi who has necessitated a shift in the Biden administration’s diplomatic approach.


Ebrahim Raisi is considered a hardliner on both domestic and foreign policy, with a resounding history of human rights abuses and repression.[6] Concerning US-Iranian relations, Raisi has condemned US policy on Iran and punitive sanctions.[7] Though, in his first press conference as president-elect on June 21, he backed the US and Iran both returning to full compliance with the JCPOA; though, he ruled out meeting with President Joe Biden.[8] Domestically, civil unrest over economic hardship brought on by crippling US sanctions, political corruption, and COVID-19 continues to threaten the regime’s grasp on maintaining its docile citizenry. As such, Raisi has come to power at a crucial time in Iran's history in which a successful revival of the nuclear deal is likely to reposition the country on the international scene. The economically and politically perilous nature of comprehensive US sanctions seems to have had consequences on Iran domestically and internationally which will likely serve as strong incentives for Raisi to seek relief via the JCPOA. Conversely, there is a less likely possibility that Raisi will demonstrate his dismissiveness in diplomacy with the US and seek the alternative option of refusing to return to the JCPOA and bolstering Iran’s ability to become self-sufficient. This option is likely, not convenient for US and European interests because it nullifies the effectiveness of the sanctions-based economic leverage that the US possesses.


One major dynamic of the new dilemma that Biden faces in dealing with Raisi is the sanctions he carries from his multitude of human rights abuses, including the mass killing of political dissidents.[9] Biden and his top aides are likely facing pressure over whether to lift the sanctions on Raisi as they negotiate with Iran to revive the JCPOA. It is rare for the United States to sanction the head of a foreign government—in theory, the sanctions limit Raisi’s ability to travel to places like New York for United Nations gatherings.[10] While Raisi’s record warrants the sanctions, the Biden administration might be able to add Raisi’s sanctions to the list of economic and political constraints from which he would be willing to relieve Iran in return for Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The dilemma that Raisi’s sanctions give the Biden administration can therefore benefit the US with greater leverage in Vienna. Through, with actions to lift Raisi’s sanctions will likely come international and domestic condemnation of Biden who may be seen as compromising the moral integrity of the US.


While Raisi is still likely to welcome a return to compliance with the JCPOA under the new Biden administration for economic sanctions relief, it will probably be under different terms. The Trump administration’s reneging on the JCPOA betrayed the trust that Iran’s President Rouhani put in American dependability and is highly likely that Iran under Raisi’s regime will be less amenable to diplomacy to avoid the same mistake. Raisi’s blatant assumption of American untrustworthiness coupled with Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the JCPOA has built an extremely shaky foundation of trust upon which the Biden administration intends to close the deal in Vienna. Raisi has already warned the Biden administration that talks on limiting Iran’s conventional arsenal, which includes the manufacturing of ballistic missiles, and their use of proxies is a non-starter.[11] A Raisi-led Iran is likely to set a new tone in regards to its foreign policy, one that prioritizes self-reliance over international cooperation—something that was exacerbated by the actions of the US under the Trump administration.


For both countries to achieve these goals set forth by their new leaders, one problem must first be solved: the nuclear program issue. For the US to move on from the Middle East and allocate the necessary resources to the Pacific, it has to ensure that it does not leave behind an Iranian state that can dictate the regional geopolitical order with a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, for Iran to pursue its ambitions, it needs the US to reduce its sphere of influence in the Middle East and lift the severe economic sanctions crippling its economy. The US has always indicated that sanctions relief only comes from concessions over Iran’s nuclear program. This brings both the US and Iran to a crossroads - one that may best serve both countries in a deal, whether it be a return to the JCPOA, or some other arms control agreement. If no arrangement can be made between the two countries under Biden and Raisi, relations between the US and Iran could hit all-time lows, resulting in continued skirmishes in the Middle East that would lock the US in the region for the foreseeable future and set the foundation for major conflict.


According to Vali Nasr, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the only alternative to a nuclear deal with Iran is war.[12] Under severe economic sanctions, Iran has continued its support of regional proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, demonstrating a significant amount of resiliency. While it is highly likely that the regime knows it cannot survive more than a few more years under this economic duress, its actions have indicated that it may believe it can last just long enough to gain enough leverage in negotiations over its nuclear program. Despite Iran’s use of proxies being extremely concerning to the US, their actions are likely not enough to justify another US intervention in the region - only a nuclear weapon is. Knowing this, Iran may very well be trying to call the US’ bluff, that is to continue down the road to developing a nuclear weapon until the US is forced to choose between returning to compliance in the JCPOA first, or war. Since the Biden administration has publicly prioritized exiting the Middle East region, evidenced by the withdrawal from Afghanistan, its ambitions to diplomatically and militarily depart are essentially dependent on Iran’s nuclear program. This likely leads Iran to believe that it can force the US to an agreement by continuing to enrich uranium to higher purities because the US would not risk increasing the prospects for war. Even though the US does not need a deal as much as Iran does, the only way it can truly pivot its foreign policy priorities to China is by limiting Iranian military capabilities, something that likely only culminates through negotiations.


Even though US and Iranian officials have halted their indirect negotiations in Vienna after six rounds of discussions, it is still very likely, and the most favorable situation for both countries, that a nuclear deal will get signed. While Iran may believe it can force the US to a deal on its timeline by ramping up its enrichment capacities, Israel has proven that it will not hesitate to launch clandestine preventive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and Iranian VIPs if the opportunity presents itself. In April, Israel launched its most recent attack on Iran’s nuclear program via a cyber weapon that caused a blackout at the Natanz nuclear facility.[13] While these strikes have not necessarily deterred Iran from continuing to pursue a nuclear weapon, they have certainly disrupted progress and have demonstrated to Iran that there is a major compromise in the state’s security and intelligence apparatus. As a result, likely, Iran will not just be looking to achieve sanctions relief from the US to aid its economy, but also a level of protection against attacks from Israel. Even though Israel has made clear its disdain for the JCPOA and recent negotiations to revive it, demonstrated by the April cyberattack that probably was meant to undermine progress made in Vienna, it is unlikely that they will threaten their longstanding relationship with the US by actively targeting Iranian assets in a post-deal scenario. Additionally, given the US’ ambitions to direct its foreign policy towards the Pacific, it is improbable that Israel would take any actions to expedite this process because of its dependence on the US for support in the Middle East.


If the US and Iran are not able to effectively negotiate a solution to the nuclear program issue, tensions between the two countries will likely escalate to levels seen under the Trump administration, or even higher. This will probably result not only in the continued presence of US troops in the Middle East, backpedaling on promises made under the Biden administration, but also set a hostile precedent for relations between the US and Iran for years to come. Aware of this possibility, Iran has taken the appropriate steps to hedge against a potential fallout with the West. In March 2021, the Iranian regime, under a reformist president, signed a lengthy 25-year cooperation deal with China that promised to bring both economic and military benefits.[14] While it may not be as revolutionary as some may suggest given the regime’s skepticism towards China, this will almost certainly result in an assured market for Iran’s petroleum products, providing an extensive revenue stream that can help the economy, and it will include foreign investment into Iran’s energy and infrastructure sectors. Iran will likely use these benefits to purge itself from western control, alleviate the economic woes of its populace, and allow itself to pursue its regional ambitions more freely.


Perhaps the greatest cause for concern for the US in absence of a deal is the potential for the escalation of violence in the region as Iran will likely seek to strengthen footholds in neighboring countries through its Shi’ite militias. The US could then be forced to continue the same regional foreign policy goals that have dominated the past 20 years - preventing a regional hegemon and pushing for nuclear non-proliferation. While Iran will undoubtedly continue supporting its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, and even Gaza, the US should be primarily concerned with Iran’s influence in Iraq. In Iraq, Iran has not only established its footing due to the country’s large population and presence of Shi’a Muslims, but it has also won over influence for its dedication to combatting terrorism, namely ISIS. While the US also provided support to Iraq to combat terrorism and ISIS starting in 2014, its support over the past several years has waned as the threat has fallen from priority lists, resulting in Iran filling that gap with its continued presence. In doing so, Iranian-backed militias, known under their umbrella term Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have coalesced support among large factions of Iraqi citizens, in large part due to the work of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, former commander of PMF.[15] Since these two individuals were the greatest deterrent against ISIS on the ground in Iraq, their deaths at the hands of the US highly likely exacerbated Iraqi animosity towards the US, bolstering support for greater Iranian influence. Furthermore, their assassinations could also be responsible for angering Iraqi citizens who were grateful for Iran’s role in flushing out terrorists from the country.


Iran has such a vested interest in Iraq for two main reasons: to counter the threat of US military forces in the region and to shape the re-emergence of the Iraqi state with strong Shi’a influence.[16] In doing so, Iran would likely have more leverage in dictating the regional geopolitical order, allowing itself to rival any other country in the Middle East, especially that of Israel, and to defend itself against US aggression. Recent tit-for-tat strikes in Iraq and Syria between US forces and PMFs are likely only a glimpse of what potential conflict between both countries could look like if Iran’s influence is not balanced and a deal is not signed in the near term. The shadow war for control in Iraq between the US and Iran will likely be a hard one for the west to win - something made especially clear after a call to remove US forces from the country in the wake of the Soleimani assassination, and after the Iraqi prime minister strongly condemned the recent US strikes against PMFs in what he called a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security.”[17] Given this rhetoric, It is highly probable that any future strikes against PMFs in Iraq will cast unfavorably over US influence in the country.


While Iran’s conservative faction, embodied by Raisi, has been highly critical of former President Rouhani and his nuclear diplomacy, their critique has focused less on the agreement’s limits on Iran's nuclear program than on how it has failed to deliver the promised economic dividends, such as increased international investment. As such, in the Biden administration’s endeavors to liaise with Raisi, he will likely face little trouble in reinstating the JCPOA according to the original provisions set in 2015. Though, the prospects of success are highly unlikely regarding Biden’s intention to continue negotiations after both countries return to compliance to make the deal “longer and stronger.”[18] The conservative faction of the Islamic Republic which is now in power has strictly rejected this proposal. Moreover, after his election, Raisi said Iran will not take part in any negotiations over areas the US reportedly wants to link to talks, such as Iranian adventurism in the region.[19] Therefore, at the moment, the most likely outcome of the talks in Vienna is a return to the agreement with little prospect of its renegotiation to make it more comprehensive.


Moving past the JCPOA with the assumption that it will be reinstated with the same conditions as in 2015, Biden must find or muster additional leverage over Iran to make future talks about other issues come to fruition. These issues may include Tehran’s transfer of ballistic missiles to its regional proxies, its expansion of influence to undermine regional rivals, or its diplomatic and economic alignments with American arch-rivals, China and Russia. In the prospective world of post-JCPOA reinstatement, Biden search for additional leverage must not be solely economic for two reasons: (1) most forms of economic leverage would infringe on the JCPOA if employed and (2) if the US were to play a role in Iran’s economic hardship again, Iran’s leadership would likely lose all trust in the US, they would be able to employ diversionary tactics again, and they would be incentivized the renege on the nuclear deal. Therefore, the Biden administration should find other more nuanced forms of leverage.


While the Biden administration could cede substantial economic leverage as a consequence of the JCPOA, a US return to the JCPOA would reinvigorate that leverage in important ways. First, any agreement by which the US and Iran’s return to compliance with the JCPOA could secure the critical US interests in capping Iran's nuclear program and facilitating international access into Iran's nuclear facilities—this leverage is most clearly present in the US's right to snap back sanctions. Second, observations of Tehran’s behavior under Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” manifested with the scaling up of its nuclear program, its increasingly aggressive regional activities, and its usage of missiles on American forces in Iraq. This failure demonstrates that US sanctions provide the most leverage through tailored use, rather than a broadly applied boycott. Therefore, by lifting sanctions according to the JCPOA, Iran’s economy will be open to the international market while still allowing the Biden administration to put still-sanctioned parties in Iran — relating to Iran’s human rights abuses and Iran's support for extremist movements — at a competitive disadvantage to their non-sanctioned peers. This leverage will likely incentivize them to cease activities deemed anathema to US interests. Also, by lifting sanctions but retaining the underlying legal authorities under which they were imposed, the Biden administration will likely be able to coax formerly sanctioned parties in Iran to refrain from activities that may be sanctionable. As a result, it will have reinvigorated the leverage lost during the era of “maximum pressure.”


President Biden should utilize his leverage to address the pressing Iranian encroachment issues facing American allies in the region. While the Iranians are less keen to discuss missiles, for it is their principal means of deterrence, Biden should insist that Tehran reduce long-range missile launches and the supply of short-range missiles to their regional proxies. In return, for instance, he could further ease Iran’s economic strife by giving the country access to dollars and more civilian nuclear cooperation. The effect of limiting Iran’s proxy fuel is likely to have beneficial implications for the greater Middle East. In 2015, American allies Israel and Saudia Arabia opposed the JCPOA arguing that it ignored funds and arms being supplied to Iran’s proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. If Biden were to limit Tehran’s transfer of missiles to its regional proxies, Israel and Saudia Arabia would likely be more supportive of the JCPOA, and major conflicts may subside. For example, the internationalized tensions of the Yemeni Civil War may decrease with Saudi Arabia facing less pressure from the Houthis. This sort of effect will likely be realized in other Iranian-entrenched conflicts like Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria as well. Overall, with the reinstatement of the JCPOA, Biden will still have the opportunity to defend national security interests and the interests of American allies by using the reinvigorated instrument of leverage in his diplomatic toolbox


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that the US and its European partners continue with nuclear talks and take a less aggressive approach than previously done by the US or Israel to ensure rapid enrichment and production of Iranian nuclear weapons does not happen. CTG also recommends the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) work with Iran to ensure there will be no acts of sabotage when visiting plants and work with Iran on an agreement for oversight. The CENTCOM Team will continue to monitor all news coming out on nuclear enrichment or development in Iran and will continue to report it in the 3D report.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Ebrahim Raisi Registering at the Iranian Presidential Election” by GTVM92 licenced under Creative Commons

[2] Can Biden Finally Put the Middle East in Check and Pivot Already?, Foreign Policy, March 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/02/biden-middle-east-china-pivot-clinton-obama/

[3] Joe Biden: There's a smarter way to be tough on Iran, CNN, September 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html

[4] Biden’s Iran Dilemma, Washington Institute, February 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/bidens-iran-dilemma

[5] Iran nuclear deal: US joins Vienna talks aimed at reviving accord, BBC, April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56643178

[6] Winner of Iran presidency is hardline judge who is under U.S. sanctions, Reuters, June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/front-runner-iran-presidency-is-hardline-judge-sanctioned-by-us-2021-06-15/

[7] 'A soldier': New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi comes to power with clear hard-line agenda, Abc News, June 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/International/soldier-iranian-president-ebrahim-raisi-power-clear-hard/story?id=78374091

[8] Iran’s Raisi backs nuclear talks, rules out meeting Biden, Reuters, June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-raisi-says-foreign-policy-wont-be-limited-by-nuclear-deal-2021-06-21/

[9] Winner of Iran presidency is hardline judge who is under U.S. sanctions, Reuters, June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/front-runner-iran-presidency-is-hardline-judge-sanctioned-by-us-2021-06-15/

[10] Iran’s next president gives Biden a new nuclear headache, Politico, June 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/06/21/iran-next-president-biden-headache-495386

[11] Raisi says Iran’s ballistic missiles are ‘not negotiable’ — and he doesn’t want to meet Biden, Washington Post, June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/06/21/iran-nuclear-power-plant-bushehr/

[12] Deal or No Deal? The Future of U.S.–Iran Relations Under the Biden Administration, Asia Society, February 2021, https://asiasociety.org/texas/events/deal-or-no-deal-future-us-iran-relations-under-biden-administration

[13] Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’, Associated Press, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-iran-358384f03b1ef6b65f4264bf9a59a458

[14] Iran and China sign 25-year cooperation agreement, Al Jazeera, March 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/27/iran-and-china-sign-25-year-cooperation-agreement-in-tehran

[15] Inside the US-Iran Shadow War for Control of the Middle East, Vice, June 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrfDDrPOtlo

[16] Iran’s Networks of Influence - Chapter Four: Iraq, International Institute for Strategic Studies, November 2019, https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/iran-dossier/iran-19-06-ch-4-iraq

[17] US raids slammed as ‘blatant violation’ of Iraq’s sovereignty, Al Jazeera, June 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/28/iraq-pm-slams-us-raids-as-flagrant-violation-of-sovereignty

[18] New U.S. secretary of state stands by demand Iran return to nuclear deal before U.S. does, Reuters, January 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-blinken/new-u-s-secretary-of-state-stands-by-demand-iran-return-to-nuclear-deal-before-u-s-does-idUSKBN29W2XF

[19] Raisi says Iran’s ballistic missiles are ‘not negotiable’ — and he doesn’t want to meet Biden, Washington Post, June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/06/21/iran-nuclear-power-plant-bushehr/

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