Fighting the Next “War”: A way-too-early assessment of Joe Biden’s potential Iran policy

There is a common aphorism in political and military analysis about how politicians and generals are “always fighting the last war.” It refers to the idea that planners spend too much time dwelling on past failures rather than imagining the possibilities of an unknown future. It is, in some ways, the psychological antidote to its more overused cousin, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Iranians, in general, tend to dwell on their past. They nationalistically celebrate the history of their ancient Empire while simultaneously lamenting more recent abuses suffered at the hands of the Great Powers of modernity. Conversely, the United States, Iran’s most relevant antagonist in the last four decades, seems always to be operating under the assumption that history is irrelevant to its political aims. Everything past is simply prologue and occurs independently of what comes next. This attitude has plagued America’s foreign policy over the past three-quarters of a century and has resulted in many of its worst military misadventures. Now, it has culminated in a present more politically precarious than any since the Second World War.

Which brings us to the Biden campaign’s Iran policy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Biden’s potential approach to Iran in recent weeks. Granted, I may be the only one doing so at the moment. Given the times we live in, it’s understandable that Iran likely isn’t at the top of most Americans’ political agenda, at least when it comes to voting priorities. Still, that doesn’t mean that Iran will cease to be a challenge for whoever occupies the White House come January 2021, which is why it’s worth examining, in full, what the presumed Democratic challenger’s approach might be should he prevail in November.

Assessing Biden’s advisory team

Any political campaign is the sum of its parts, particularly in the realm of niche foreign policy issues like Iran. By that measure, it’s fairly clear which way Biden’s foreign policy is headed. As with virtually every other element of his campaign, the primary appeal here is nostalgia.

Led by Tony Blinken, who served as Vice President Biden’s national security advisor during Obama’s first term before moving to deputy national security advisor and later deputy secretary of state in the second, the current lineup of Biden foreign policy advisors reads like an alumni dinner invite list from the former vice president’s national security shop.

Of this group, at least two, Colin Kahl and Jake Sullivan (both former national security advisors to the vice president), played vital roles in the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the 2015 Iran deal. Sullivan was a member of the team that secretly flew to Oman in 2012 to meet with officials from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration as part of a secret backchannel to lay the groundwork for later negotiations. Kahl, you may recall, was one of the former Iran deal negotiators targeted by a secretive Israeli black-ops firm hired by Trump aides in 2018 to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials who were involved in negotiating the deal.

A number of other former Obama-era appointees, as well as a few Bush-era crossovers, such as Nicholas Burns, have also joined the Biden campaign.

Concerns about the “revolving door” of DC politics aside, there are obvious advantages to bringing experienced government professionals out of the think-tank/lecture circuit and back into the halls of power. These people know the rules and procedures of international politics. They also have an appreciation for the delicate nature of the process by which international agreements come together. More importantly, they know how a lack of discretion or haphazard decision making can quickly cause a situation to spiral out of control, as it has virtually unabated during the Trump presidency.

For those who were involved with nuclear deal negotiations in the Obama administration, prior experience in dealing directly with Iranian government officials will be invaluable. Presumably, some of these people, like Kahl and Sullivan, may be able to tap into the personal relationships they forged with their Iranian counterparts during the original JCPOA negotiations, giving negotiations a much-needed boost out of the gate following a long hiatus.

By the same measure, they will need to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia. The faces across the table may look familiar, but four years of dealing with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, among other crises, has undoubtedly affected their mindset. Many will feel betrayed by the United States, and they may not see much distinction between different presidential administrations if one president’s promises can be so easily undone on the next one’s whims.

To take advantage of this situation, Biden will need to move quickly once in office. The next Iranian presidential election is scheduled for May 2021, and the incumbent Rouhani is not eligible to run again. If February’s parliamentary election results are any indication, it is highly unlikely that the faces sitting across the table will be anywhere near as friendly as they were under Rouhani.

Biden’s Iran policy to date

Biden himself is no foreign policy neophyte. Indeed, his extensive experience in international affairs as a senator was one of the primary justifications given for his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. Historically, Biden has adopted a relatively hawkish, but by no means extremist, foreign policy stance. He (now infamously) voted in support of the Iraq war authorization in 2002, but in 2007, ahead of a short-lived attempt at a presidential campaign, he declared that he would consider any effort by the Bush administration to go to war with Iran without Congressional approval to be an impeachable offense. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a vehement supporter of the Iran deal effort, so much so that Obama tasked Biden with rallying support for the deal in Congress. While Biden was unable to secure ratification, he garnered enough support to prevent an embarrassing rejection on the Hill.

Thus far, 2020 presidential candidate Biden has not articulated many specifics about Iran policy. His website is hopelessly vague on the matter, offering just a few short lines buried in the section on “restoring American leadership.” Verbally, he’s only addressed the issue directly on a handful of occasions. Iran took center stage at the January 14 Democratic primary debate, following the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani eleven days prior, but the discussion was, as David Sanger of the New York Times (or his headline writer) put it, “mushy.” Few, if any, of the candidates offered much beyond vague generalities about disagreeing with Trump. In his response to the Iran discussion, Biden staked out a relatively aggressive position compared with his Democratic rivals. He proposed reentering negotiations with Iran for a new deal but said he would seek changes that would prevent Iran from producing nuclear fuel beyond the scope of the original agreement, as well as instituting more intrusive inspections measures.

Biden’s answer in the debate was consistent with a written response he gave to a Council on Foreign Relations candidate questionnaire several months prior. The August 2019 questionnaire asked candidates whether they would support rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — also known as the Iran Deal), as well as what changes the candidate would want, if any, before agreeing to rejoin the accord. Biden rebuked Trump’s approach but framed the problem more in terms of America’s broken relationship with its allies than diplomacy with Iran.

Declaring Iran “dangerous” and “destabilizing,” Biden conditioned his reentry into the deal on Iran’s behavior, writing, “If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would reenter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.”

This language will do little to quell Iranian fears that the Biden administration comprehends even the most basic of Iranian complaints about the United States’ actions under Trump. Iran has been steadfast in its position during the Trump administration that because it was the United States that took the first step out of the deal, it is the responsibility of the United States to take the first step back towards compliance.

Additionally, Biden made at least one crucial mistake in his answer. Iran didn’t “restart” its nuclear program because the old one never ended. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran agreed to place strict limits on the amount and levels of enrichment they would conduct. This may sound like simple semantics, but this is an important distinction from the Iranian perspective because it grants them something they view as rightfully theirs as a sovereign member of the international community.

Biden’s CFR answer is notable for its commitment to diplomacy — something that Trump cannot be bothered even to pursue superficially — but he directs this statement more toward a restoration of faith in America’s allies than a genuine effort to de-escalate tensions with its adversaries. Biden writes that he would “leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy…to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”

To Tehran, this will sound like more of the same: all stick, no carrot.

More recently, Biden has recently made some small conciliatory gestures toward aiding Iran in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. He posted a statement on Medium in early April describing some of the steps he would take to provide humanitarian sanctions relief to Iran. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that Iran’s inability to acquire humanitarian aid existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic. The current situation is as much a crisis of confidence as it is a technocratic problem to solve. Private industry and banks have been wary of engaging in trade with Iran on any level due to fears and uncertainty about US retaliation. If Biden is serious about providing relief to Iran — and thereby promoting some goodwill amidst the pandemic — he will have to go much further than a functionally-ignored Medium post to achieve this.

The next “war”

Should Biden win in November, he will, in his own words, be tasked with restoring “dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage.” Achieving this will necessitate a level of humility rarely seen in American foreign policy. To have a chance of success with Iran policy, Biden will have to make much bolder overtures than Obama did. He will need to make amends with adversaries as well as allies. He will need to offer tangible and credible benefits that go beyond the personal generosity of whoever occupies the White House at a given moment.

Most importantly, Biden and his team will need to understand the Iranian perspective in addition to their own. They will need to learn from the lessons of the past without letting it cloud their conception of a better future. In other words, they will need to learn how to fight the next “war” instead of the last one.