If and when a return to the agreement is reached, the Biden administration will also need to counter Iran’s escalating efforts in the Middle East.
About the authors: James Jeffrey is the Chair of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute.
Ebrahim Raisi’s election as president of Iran came as no surprise. All those who might have been a threat to him were disqualified. He was the choice of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and small wonder: Few people better embody the ideology of the Islamic Republic. He will not open Iran up to the outside world, and will certainly not look to accommodate the United States in any way. As for Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, he has made clear that it is “not negotiable.”
The Israel-Hamas conflict last month was a reminder that nearly everything in the Middle East is connected—and whether we’re talking about Hamas rockets, the ongoing calamity in Yemen, or the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region is the common factor.
We understand why President Joe Biden seeks a return to the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The United States must roll back Iran’s nuclear program and then use the time left before the agreement’s sunset provisions lapse to either produce the longer and stronger deal the Biden administration seeks, or enhance our deterrence so Tehran understands that the U.S. will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-threshold state.
However, although we are convinced of the value of containing Iran’s nuclear program, that is not enough. The administration will also need to counter what will almost certainly be Iran’s escalating efforts in the region: With the sanctions relief that will result from returning to compliance with the JCPOA, Tehran’s troublemaking resources will increase. Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign limited the resources Iran could make available for militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Palestinian outfits Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but it never stopped Iran’s ongoing provision of training, weaponry, and other material and technical assistance.
After the recent conflict with Israel, Hamas leaders effusively praised Tehran for what it had provided them. And we know from leaked audio that Iran’s own Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was frustrated by the Iranian regime’s elite Quds Force consistently undercutting what he hoped to achieve with diplomacy. Moreover, Khamenei will want to show that the return to the JCPOA does not mean he is giving up his resistance ideology, so we can expect more Iranian expansion in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as threats to neighboring states.
This fear of Iran’s regional agenda explains much of the opposition to the JCPOA, both when it was agreed and through to the present day. Many in the U.S. Congress as well as leaders of Middle East states worried then—as they do now—that the administration and its European partners will wrongly see the Iran file as “closed” because they see the threat Iran poses too narrowly, and in only nuclear terms. Critics in the region, however, see the past as prologue: Just as Iran became much more active and aggressive in the Middle East after the JCPOA was agreed upon, so now do they expect threatening acts if and when the U.S. and Iran come back into compliance. Fairly or not, much of the region remains convinced that the Obama administration ignored Iran’s aggression out of a concern for jeopardizing the deal’s implementation.
The regional perspective on Iran is driven by these leaders’ experience with the Islamic Republic. For them, the core question with Iran, as Henry Kissinger once put it, is whether it is a country or a cause. The case for the latter is strong and deeply rooted: Revolutionary Iran uses Islamic, Shiite, and anti-colonialist rhetoric to justify an expansionist nationalistic agenda. Soon after the Iranian revolution, the execution of thousands of real or imagined regime opponents, support for terrorist groups throughout the region, unrelenting threats to Israel’s existence, the dangerous counteroffensive into Iraq in the 1980s, the assault on the U.S. in Lebanon in 1983, and the tanker war with America all made clear Iran’s nature and threat.
When, by 2005, Iran’s development of a nuclear-weapons program became apparent, it was first seen as yet another, if particularly dangerous, tool in Iran’s box of power politics. Thus, the Bush and Obama administrations declared that the U.S. would use force to stop Iran from developing a weapon—a threat not levied against South Africa, Libya, India, or Pakistan, each of which at various points had developed some nuclear capacity. Seen by the West as a dangerous cause, Iran was treated as an inherent aggressor.
The Obama administration understandably worried that if the Iranian nuclear program could not be stopped diplomatically, it would trigger a wider conflict, either because Israel, feeling existentially threatened, or the U.S., knowing the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, would act. Pursuing diplomacy as the means to alter Iran’s behavior was for many reasons not just the logical but also the politically necessary path to follow. Inevitably, it implied that Iran was now not a cause but a country, whose nuclear ambitions, and perhaps, by extension, regional threat, could be tamed by traditional carrot-and-stick diplomacy.
Some in the Obama administration came to believe that the JCPOA could signal a diplomatic “regime change”: By witnessing Western respect and trust, Iran would embrace the globalized made-in-America world.
If that was the bet, it didn’t pay off. From 2013, when serious negotiations with the Iranian government began, until 2018, when Trump pulled out of the deal, Iran did not moderate its behavior. Instead, it accelerated its regional aggression, exploiting the instability caused by the Arab Spring as well as the rise of the Islamic State to expand its power. For many in the region, the lesson was obvious: There is no way to build trust with Iran, because Iran has an agenda to dominate the Middle East.
Regardless of how Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, and others saw the Obama administration, Biden’s approach toward Iran is clearly different from what they perceived Obama’s to be. Note, for example, the following signs that the Biden team won’t be passive in the face of direct or indirect threats from Iran: air strikes on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in response to Iranian-backed Shiite militia rocket and drone attacks against Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are deployed; naval interdiction of dhows carrying Iranian weapons to Yemen; despite pressure, the stalwart support for Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rockets. At the same time, American officials are making commitments in private conversations with our allies in the region to not allow the nuclear file to change what the U.S. tolerates when it comes to Iran in the Middle East.
The challenge will be to follow up on these early moves and show, once the JCPOA is restored—which we both believe will happen sometime this year—that the administration will work with our partners and contest the Iranians as they directly and via proxies expand and threaten others. The irony is that for diplomacy to work, whether on the nuclear question or on other regional issues, Tehran must know that there is muscle behind it. Absent pressure, there would have been no JCPOA, and if we want to deter Iran’s egregious actions, we must be able to show its leaders that they will pay a price.
As Israel is now in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, along with the rest of the Middle East, the Biden administration should bring it together with our Arab partners to develop options and conduct contingency planning for dealing with Shiite-militia threats. The administration must also encourage the Gulf states to better support the Iraqi government; to use our collective assets to do more to suppress Iran’s ability to export weapons to its clients; and to support continuing Israeli strikes against Iranian efforts to build its military infrastructure and develop precision-guidance capabilities for Syrian and Hezbollah missiles.
During the Trump administration, Washington used differing means across the Middle East’s various countries but on the whole applied military, economic, and diplomatic pressure to impede Iran’s advance. Its actions were supported by a regional coalition that eventually coalesced into the Abraham Accords. Building on those agreements makes sense not only in terms of using Arab outreach to Israel in order to elicit Israeli moves toward peace with the Palestinians, but also in terms of strengthening the coalition that is arrayed against Iran.
To succeed, the Biden administration will need to work with Arab, Israeli, and Turkish partners on Iranian regional issues, and maintain pressure on both Tehran and those governments tempted to yield to Iran. Such an approach does not preclude diplomacy; quite the contrary, it could promote it. Indeed, managed the right way, we may build Iran’s interest in a dialogue.
Ultimately, if regional discussions with Tehran are to have any chance of reducing tensions and minimizing the potential for conflict and escalation, they must generate the kind of pushback from the region that gives Iran a reason to temper its behavior.