While the current political chaos in America is profuse enough for President-elect Joe Biden, he may also need to focus his energy on the tensions rising between the United States and Iran due to Trump and his administration’s recent aggressive rhetoric and the possibility for Trump to launch a last-minute strike.
On Jan. 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of providing a home base for al-Qaida despite having no real evidence to back his claims. Pompeo further accused Iran of providing al-Qaida’s members with logistical support to enable its activity. Analysts have accused Pompeo of trying to increase enmity between the countries to prevent Biden from rejoining the Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) or an agreement with similar goals.
Iran has met this hostility with its own hawkish rhetoric, with prominent members of the Iranian parliament stating that the country will expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors if sanctions against it are not lifted by Jan. 21. They have also decided to resume uranium enrichment up to 20%. As we approach the anniversary of the drone strike that killed high-ranking Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and nine others and continue to exacerbate tensions with Iran through intense accusations, the prospect for retaliation (which Iran has vowed to carry out) threatens to disturb the already shaky peace between the two countries.
Trump’s Relations with Iran
The Trump administration’s decision to abandon the carefully crafted Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) in January 2018 and its continued threats to attack Iran set off a domino effect that has only worsened tensions between the two countries.
The 2015 plan sprung from constant back-and-forth official and behind-the-scenes negotiations between Barack Obama’s and Hassan Rouhani’s administrations. After the negotiations were over, members of Congress demanded the ability to review the deal, stating that Obama did not have the authority to lift sanctions. In the legislative debate, the JCPOA was staunchly criticized by Republican party members who swore that they would kill the agreement as soon as it was released, often arguing for the U.S. government to not only maintain sanctions on Iran, but to strengthen them until a better agreement was negotiated.
While the plan certainly had its flaws, including its limited duration and failure to regulate Iran’s regional aggression, it marked a new step in melting the icy relations between the U.S. and Iran until Trump’s administration decided to step out of the agreement and impose harsh sanctions on the country. In response, Rouhani publicly stated that Iran would partially withdraw from portions of the deal, which caused the governments of both countries to threaten military action against the other. Iranian responses included allegedly allowing Yemen’s Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, to launch a drone attack on Saudi oil fields in September 2019 (Iran, however, vowed that they had no involvement).
Tensions would continue to rise as a rocket attack in December 2019 killed a U.S. contractor and injured four service members at a base in northeastern Iraq. After blaming the attack on Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, the U.S. retaliated with deadly airstrikes of its own. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad would be subject to violent protests, which led the U.S. to send more military personnel to the embassy for protection.
Trump tweeted on Dec. 31, “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
Tensions would come to a head on Jan. 2, 2020. Acting upon orders given by Trump, the U.S. military killed Soleimani, who led the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and was the mastermind of major Iranian military operations. It should be noted that killing a prominent foreign leader can be considered an act of war. While the Pentagon described it as a decision based on necessity in order to protect U.S. personnel abroad, it has been largely regarded as an action intended to escalate tensions.
The killing of Soleimani was a complete blow to Iran and its military, and the threat of actual physical war blooming between America and Iran felt imminent. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened the U.S., stating “harsh vengeance awaits those criminals behind the martyrdom of General Suleimani.”
Although a year has passed since the deadly drone strike and tensions have not been as high, Trump’s administration has not stepped down from either direct or indirect confrontations with Iran. American B-52s are flying over Iran, which has forced its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to tweet that this was a “plot to fabricate a pretext for war.”
Biden’s Projected Relations with Iran
This constant threat of confrontation with Iran fostered by the Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric and actions should be worrying for Biden. He should make it a priority for the United States to repair its shaky relationship with the country.
Iran has been increasingly worried by the threat Trump and his administration posed, prompting them to stage a major naval drill involving more than 700 boats; on Jan. 7 Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted, “Iran does not seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security, and vital interests.”
Zarif expresses the desire of most of the Iranian government, which seeks to avoid a war with America, one that they know they would lose.
Despite the actions taken by Tehran, it seems as if they would be open to returning to the agreement as long as Biden is able to promise sanction relief immediately.
In December 2020, Rouhani and Khamenei apparently both stated that Iran would rejoin the JCPOA “within one hour” of the United States doing so. While there are hardliners that reject any kind of negotiations with the U.S., if the top leaders are ready to rejoin the JCPOA, this is promising for Biden. Therefore, the best course of action for Biden when he enters office is to immediately rejoin the agreement. Trying to negotiate with Iran for a better plan may permanently break any negotiations between the two countries.
However, Biden has currently stated his desire to engage in more negotiations and agreements that would further tighten and restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian officials, however, are adamant in not entertaining such notions. Iranian officials, both moderates and radicals in the government, seem willing to suffer through sanctions as long as they get their way (they have already suffered through three years of sanctions under Trump’s administration).
However, the prospect that a hardliner will replace Rouhani is increasingly probable due to the aversion toward reformists and moderates, and this presents a hurdle for Iran rejoining the JCPOA. It has been the moderates and reformists who have promoted the idea that economic prosperity is more important than rejecting negotiations with America. Therefore, the time that Biden has for Iran to rejoin the JCPOA is incredibly limited.
Biden must also staunchly criticize the rhetoric employed by Trump and his administration and show that his administration will be more open to negotiating with the country. While aggressive rhetoric does not necessarily drop the prospects of negotiations, rhetoric can have an important impact on public opinion in both Iran and America.
Biden has inherited quite a chaotic relationship, and in order to create any lasting peace between the two countries, he must push for the United States to quickly rejoin the JCPOA.