By Kerry Boyd Anderson
March 25, 2020
Following more primary elections last week, it appears that former Vice President Joe Biden is very likely to be the Democratic Party’s nominee to compete against President Donald Trump in the November election. Recent retaliatory strikes between the US and Iran-affiliated militants in Iraq have highlighted that Iran will continue to pose a challenge for whoever is the next US president.
Trump’s presidency has represented a major break with previous Republican and Democratic foreign policy precedents. Biden promises an approach much more similar to that of former President Barack Obama. However, the world has changed significantly in the last four years, and even the type of centrist foreign policy experts that Biden would likely look to for advice would suggest some changes to US foreign policy.
Trump’s approach toward Iran is already well known. His disdain for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and for the Obama administration’s negotiation of it — was clear during his campaign for president. He withdrew the US from the agreement in May 2018. His administration subsequently imposed severe sanctions on Iran, as the key element of a “maximum pressure” campaign. Under Trump, America has been more assertive toward Iran militarily while seeking to avoid an all-out war. Most notably, a US strike killed key Iranian figure Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January.
While the Trump administration has clearly been willing to use sanctions and limited military actions against Iran, the ultimate goal of the maximum pressure approach has been less clear. It appears that Trump wants to force Iran to negotiate a deal that is more conducive to US interests and therefore demonstrate that he is a better negotiator than Obama. However, within the administration, different advisers appear to have varying ideas about what an acceptable agreement might look like. For example, in a 2018 speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a series of demands that went far beyond the JCPOA’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program; including requiring that Iran halt funding for groups like Hezbollah, withdraw its forces from Syria, and in other ways fundamentally reverse its foreign policy. Going even further, some advisers promoted regime change, though Trump appears to have little interest in that approach.
If Trump wins re-election, it is likely that his administration will continue its maximum pressure approach. The cycle of escalation and de-escalation between Iran and the US would also be likely to continue. This would raise the ongoing risk of war. While Trump appears to want to avoid a large-scale military conflict with Iran, the political risks of a war would be lower in a second Trump administration, thus increasing the probability of aggressive US military action.
A Biden administration would likely take a very different approach. Biden has been clear that he sees Iran as a “destabilizing actor in the Middle East” that supports terrorism, opposes US interests, and represses dissent. He has said that Iran must never have nuclear weapons. In his view, the US must act to counter Iran, but should do so with a clear strategy, specific goals, and in cooperation with allies, particularly those in Europe. He has criticized Trump’s approach as lacking a strategy, with “no endgame.” He has expressed concern that Trump, acting reactively, jumps into cycles of escalation with no clear way out.
Biden has defended the JCPOA, saying that it significantly reduced the risk of Iran developing nuclear weapons and created space for diplomacy to help manage other problems related to Iran. If he became president, Biden has said that he would rejoin the JCPOA, on the condition that Iran returned to compliance with the agreement. He suggests that restarting the JCPOA would be a first step, rebuilding US credibility and re-establishing an international consensus against an Iranian nuclear weapons program. He would hope to build on that to gain other compromises from Iran and to ensure multilateral cooperation to contain Iran’s regional activities.
Both Trump and Biden would likely adopt Iran policies that would fit into their overall approach toward foreign policy. Trump prefers an approach that emphasizes being tough, using sanctions as a key tool, and fundamentally demonstrating a strong break with the Obama administration. Biden is emphasizing continuity with the Obama administration, though, in reality, the world has changed in the last few years, and his foreign policy approach would likely reflect those changes. Nonetheless, Biden emphasizes a mix of diplomacy and other forms of power projection, the importance of allies and multilateral cooperation, and a focus on traditional US values, including an anti-authoritarian component.
They both see the Iranian regime as a problem and a threat, but they would deal with the Iranian government in significantly different ways. The severity of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Iran will have long-term consequences for Iranian politics, and that might change the ways in which the winner of November’s election approaches the country. However, whatever the impact of the virus on Iranian or US politics, a Biden presidency would mark a departure from current US policy toward Iran, while a second Trump term would most likely be a continuation.