It was one of Joe Biden’s few concrete campaign promises on foreign policy: He’d rejoin a nuclear pact his predecessor ripped as “horrible” and “the worst deal ever.” But to achieve that goal, is Biden willing to declare that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not a terrorist organization?
How about lifting U.S. sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which stands accused of funding proxy Middle East militias? Or will Biden do away with sanctions aimed at Iranians who tried to interfere in the U.S. election?
Thanks to President Donald Trump’s imposition of these and other sanctions on Iran, such questions are sure to plague Biden and his aides as they seek a path back to the 2015 nuclear agreement. The president’s team is in a political bind: They must tread carefully before rolling back the thicket of sanctions Trump left behind, but Iran insists most if not all of them must be eliminated before the deal can be revived. Already, Republicans – and even some Democrats — are signaling they intend to fight Biden every step of the way. And while Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Friday that tackling Iran’s nuclear program is a “critical early priority,” others in the administration have declined to put a timeframe on returning to the nuclear deal.
For now, career U.S. government employees involved in sanctions policy have been thinking through what steps to take to return to the deal, a U.S. official said. They plan to submit their ideas to incoming Biden political appointees, including Rob Malley, a veteran foreign affairs practitioner whom Biden has named as a special envoy for Iran.
So what will Biden do? Here are the basic contours of the debate:
The critical role sanctions play in the Iran deal
The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.
However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.
Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.
A political trap for Biden
During his recent confirmation hearing before senators, now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken got a taste of the criticism that awaits Biden should he move to lift the Trump-era sanctions. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) mentioned not only Iran’s support for terrorism, but also its harsh treatment of LGBTQ people as reasons not to let up on the regime.
Blinken indicated he’s open to keeping some of the sanctions. “The nuclear agreement was one thing, but continuing and even strengthening our ability to push back and to deal effectively with Iran’s egregious behavior, including in the terrorism realm, was something that we needed and should do,” he said.
Blinken added, however, that “an Iran that has a nuclear weapon … risks acting with even greater impunity than it already does. So I think the first order of business has to be to get that back in the box.”
Cruz is hardly the only lawmaker wary of the nuclear deal. Several Democrats, including the current top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, opposed the agreement back when it was negotiated under the administration of Barack Obama.
A Republican Senate aide said lawmakers skeptical of the deal will likely object to many if not all of Biden’s attempts to ease sanctions. They also will monitor how the administration goes about enforcing sanctions that it decides to keep. One area of concern is how the Biden administration defines what goods fall under “humanitarian” exemptions to sanctions, the aide said.
“If they lift sanctions, I could see new sanctions being moved through Congress,” the aide predicted. “We’ll be closely watching any sort of agreements or understandings they’ll reach with the Iranians.”
Biden is sure to face pressure from Israel and some Arab states to keep as many sanctions on Iran as possible. Already, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that he will oppose attempts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which he fought bitterly during the Obama years. Common worries about Iranian activity have helped improve relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors in recent years, with some Arab countries agreeing to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.
People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.
“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”
The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.
“Is it worth the political capital you’d have to spend to lift the sanctions? Yes. The nuclear deal was working,” said Mary Kaszynski, deputy policy director at the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear security advocacy group.
What’s so complicated about the Trump sanctions?
The Trump administration’s numerous rounds of sanctions on Iran tackled everything from foundations controlled by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to individual steel and aluminum companies.
While Trump administration officials insisted the main goal was to stop Iran’s external aggression, critics argued the policy was actually aimed at collapsing the regime, while making it harder for another president to restore the agreement.
Former U.S. officials expect Iranian negotiators to above all demand that Biden end sanctions on major industrial sectors – petroleum in particular – that have reduced the country’s cash flow.
From there it may come down to the details of each sanction action.
Take the administration’s September 2019 sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. The sanctions were imposed under counterterrorism authorities, but some experts and former officials question the logic behind that designation. They note that the bank was already subject to other U.S. sanctions, and that all the Trump administration move did was make it harder to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine, to Iran via the bank.
How Biden treats Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization could be another flashpoint.
While few dispute that the IRGC, an elite military unit accused of being behind the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq, engages in malign activities, it already was subject to other U.S. sanctions. The question could come down to whether the Trump administration used the “foreign terrorist organization” designation properly given that it had in the past been applied to non-state actors, not a foreign government body.
That being said, Biden is likely to keep sanctions such as those imposed on Iranian groups – including the IRGC – accused of attempted interference in the 2020 U.S. election. These entities, the Trump administration said, tried “to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading U.S. voters.”
What’s the endgame?
Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.
The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.
There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.
But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.
“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.”