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US-Iran Relations and The Biden Administration

By Ramin Zareian


Executive Summary

The Biden administration has made clear its commitment to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a stark contrast from the Trump administration’s decision to cast the agreement aside. Despite the alleged desire for diplomacy, U.S.-Iranian relations have not experienced much improvement since the inauguration of President Biden. The United States continues to engage in hostile military actions, impose crippling sanctions, and refuses to be the first to return to compliance with the JCPOA, all of which threaten the possibility of fulfilling diplomatic aspirations. The following article outlines the U.S.’s contributions to the current undesirable state of affairs and details the steps needed to improve their relations with Iran.


Military Escalation

On February 26, the United States carried out several airstrikes in eastern Syria on buildings used by Iranian-backed militias. These attacks were in retaliation for the attack on an American base in northern Iraq on February 15.[1] The Pentagon’s claim of self-defense regarding the Syrian airstrike is dubious considering the escalations of tensions with Iran began when the Trump administration decided to assassinate Iran’s top military official, General Qasem Soleimani.


Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur investigating extrajudicial and summary executions, said that the drone strike that killed General Soleimani could only be justified in international law as a response to an imminent threat and that the United States had provided no evidence to support that position.[2] Since the assassination, the Iraqi parliament voted for the removal of all American troops from Iraq, a request with which the United States has yet to comply.[3]


One of the claimed purposes of Biden’s attack on the Iraqi militias was to bolster his administration’s position in nuclear talks. It has had the opposite effect, however. Several days following the bombing, Iran rejected the efforts made by the EU to facilitate informal talks with the United States.[4] The Biden Administration continues the Trump administration’s pattern of escalating tensions with Iran.

The Brutal Sanctions Regime

As part of its decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the Trump administration reimposed the stringent sanctions the previously imposed on Iran before the agreement.[5] The primary purpose of these sanctions has been the targeting of specific purchases and sales such as those in the energy sector or the transactions made by Iranian banks. The result of these sanctions, however, is near-complete economic isolation. Banks and companies around the world are coerced into not doing business with Iran fearing punitive measures from the United States. Examples include secondary sanctions that threaten those who engage in transactions involving the construction, mining, manufacturing, and textiles sectors of the Iranian economy.[6]

Throughout the years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, these sanctions have caused economic recessions, massive amounts of inflation, and a dramatic increase in living costs, causing ordinary Iranians to suffer as a result of higher food and medicine prices.[7] The effects of these sanctions have been particularly devastating as Iran has had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. sanctions have effectively resulted in Iran being unable to adequately respond to the pandemic due to the sanctions making it difficult for Iran to purchase medicine and health supplies from abroad, including COVID-19 vaccines needed to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the Middle East.[8]

Not only have sanctions been harmful to the Iranian people. They have been strategic failures, too. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign contributed to no change in the regional policies of Iran or to the willingness of Iranian leaders to come back to the negotiating table. There is also no sign that the sanctions triggered a popular unrest great enough to threaten the existence of the Iranian government.[9] While the Bloody November protests of 2019-2020 did occur and were the most violent and severe protests since the Iranian Revolution, even those protests weren’t enough to pose an existential threat to the Iranian government as they were suppressed swiftly.

Compliance with the JCPOA

Relief of certain sanctions was a key provision of the JCPOA, and in reimposing them, the United States clearly violated the agreement and was the first party of the agreement to do so. Since the U.S. left the JCPOA and broke many of its key provisions, they were the chief party responsible for the escalating tensions that followed with Iran. Rather than acknowledge the strategic failures of the past administration, the Biden administration has been pushing the narrative that Iran is the one to blame for the current state of affairs. In order to not appear weak in light of what they see as Iran’s insubordination, the Biden administration has been perpetuating the Trump administration’s sanctions.


If the United States were to reduce hostilities and recommit to their obligations, there is reason to believe that Iran will respond by complying with their obligations as well. In an interview with Politico, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was asked about the timing and sequencing for Iran’s returning to the obligations present in the JCPOA. He said that if the U.S. meets its obligations, then Iran will immediately comply with the restrictions to their nuclear program as stated in the agreement. According to Zarif, this requires President Biden to issue an executive order to remove the sanctions imposed during the Trump administration. It also requires the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to allow transfer of money, transfer of oil, transportation, shipping, etc.[9]


Policy Recommendations

After abandoning the JCPOA, reimposing sanctions, and assassinating Iran’s top military official, the United States’ moral suasion and diplomatic position regarding Iran have deteriorated In order for their dangerous hostility with Iran to end, the U.S. must recognize its responsibility to make amends for its contributions to furthering antagonism. Doing so, as Iran’s foreign minister has affirmed, will lead Iran to return to their obligations so that both parties can finally return to the JCPOA and end the current escalation of tensions. All of this is in line with the imperative for the Biden administration to take steps to change U.S.-Iranian relations away from a relationship based on conflict and towards a relationship based on cooperation. For these reasons, President Biden and the Cabinet of the United States ought to do the following:


1. President Biden Must End Military Actions Against Iran.

The continued escalation of military engagements has not contributed to the intended goals of the U.S. and takes them away from the possibility of achieving peace with Iran. The U.S. must also terminate all acts of military aggression against Iran to mitigate the chance of a major conflict and not risk hindering their diplomatic aspirations.


2. President Biden and the Treasury Department’s OFAC Must Return the United States to Its Obligations Under the JCPOA.


Being the first party to withdraw from the JCPOA, the U.S. is responsible for beginning the process for the reimplementation of the historic agreement rather than placing that burden on Iran. This requires President Biden to issue an executive order to remove the sanctions imposed during the Trump administration and requires the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to allow the transfer of Iran’s financial assets. If the U.S. were to return to their obligations, then Iran will return to following the agreement’s guidelines as they have claimed.


3. The United States State Department Must Restore Formal Diplomatic Relations with Iran.


A crucial step towards the U.S. establishing a more peaceful relationship with Iran is to establish a diplomatic mission in Iran. Diplomacy is necessary for the prevention of hostilities and the promotion of peaceful relations. Reestablishing a U.S. embassy in Iran would create an environment in which fruitful diplomatic relations could take place.


 

Works Cited

[1] Cooper, H., & Schmitt, E. (2021, February 26). U.S. airstrikes in Syria TARGET Iran-Backed militias That Rocketed American troops in Iraq. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/politics/biden-syria-airstrike-iran.html?auth=login-facebook

[2] Cumming-bruce, N. (2020, July 09). The killing Of qassim Suleimani was Unlawful, Says U.N. Expert. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/world/middleeast/qassim-suleimani-killing-unlawful.html

[3] Arraf, J. (2020, January 06). Iraqi Parliament votes to expel U.S. Troops, Trump threatens sanctions. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2020/01/06/793895401/iraqi-parliament-votes-to-expel-u-s-troops-trump-threatens-sanctions

[4] Macias, A. M. (2021, February 28). Iran rejects INFORMAL NUKE talks with U.S. and Eu, Insists Biden drop sanctions first. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/28/iran-rejects-informal-nuke-talks-with-us-and-eu-insists-biden-drop-sanctions-first.html

[5] Landler, M. (2018, May 08). Trump abandons Iran nuclear deal he long scorned. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html

[6] Smith, J. E., Bayz, P. C., Alam, S., & Helmstädter, F. (2020, June 5). OFAC issues NEW FAQs CLARIFYING IRAN Secondary Sanctions. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.mofo.com/resources/insights/200618-ofac-new-faqs-iran-sanctions.html

[7] Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran. (2019, December 09). Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109

[8] Karimi, N. (2020, December 09). Iran says US SANCTIONS hinder access To COVID-19 VACCINES. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-business-global-trade-hassan-rouhani-iran-ad3bb647cf7f9d3fb1a6cc396957bded

[9] Vaez, A. (2019, May 12). Trump's 'maximum PRESSURE' won't MAKE IRAN YIELD. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/05/why-trumps-sanctions-iran-arent-working/589288/

[10] Mortazavi, N. (2021, March 17). What it will take to break the U.S.-IRAN impasse: A q&a with Iranian Foreign MINISTER Javad Zarif. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/03/17/iran-nuclear-deal-javad-zarif-qa-476588

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