Trump's 'maximum pressure' on Iran started a game of chicken that Biden can't afford to keep playing

  • The Trump administration is rushing to impose new sanctions on Iran before leaving office, while Iran is poised to expand nuclear enrichment and stop nuclear inspections in the first few weeks of the new year.
  • President-elect Joe Biden can gut Trump’s “maximum pressure” and restore US credibility in short order, but he should resist calls to hold out for a broader deal with Iran, writes Defense Priorities fellow Geoff LaMear.
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President-elect Joe Biden is in a race against the clock to get Iran back into nuclear compliance.

In the United States, the Trump administration is rushing out a final spate of sanctions against Iran in an effort to preserve the US “maximum pressure” sanctions. In Iran, the situation is just as precarious, with a new law poised to expand nuclear enrichment and stop nuclear inspections within two weeks of Biden’s inauguration.

Beyond this, Iranian elections can potentially derail negotiations altogether. But Biden has the power to gut maximum pressure and restore American credibility in a short time span.

First, it should be noted that the nearly 1,000 sanctions on Iran are not all equal. Some are specifically designed to be hard to reverse. But the bulk of the US sanctions on Iran draw their authority from executive orders signed by President Donald Trump. Biden and his cabinet can eliminate these immediately.

Executive Order 13846 authorized the State and Treasury Departments to sanction or designate any person or entity in the energy, shipping, shipbuilding, automotive, or oil industries. It also prevented foreign banks from holding the Iranian rial.

Executive Order 13871 extended this to include Iran’s mining industry. And Executive Order 13902 expanded the sanctions authority to include construction, manufacturing, textiles, and “any other sector of the Iranian economy.”

Taha Shakouri, an 8-year-old boy suffering from liver cancer, plays cards at Mahak Children’s Hospital in Tehran, June 19, 2019.
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

The purview of these sanctions has continuously expanded, and with it, the economic devastation on the Iranian people.

The reimposition of sanctions in 2018 was followed by the rate of poverty in Iran nearly doubling in just two years. Despite stated exemptions in the executive orders for food and medicine, there is extensive evidence of US sanctions hindering Iran’s ability to procure medical supplies including insulin, coronavirus testing kits, and most recently, coronavirus vaccines.

If Biden wants America to lead again, then he needs to restore US moral leadership as well. Maintaining sanctions which inflict shortages and economic ruin on a nation of 80 million people doesn’t do that. The United States has never aspired to produce poverty and despair in other countries, but there is a dissonance between the policies which do just that and the rhetoric that underpins America as a moral leader. Biden can restore America’s image by ending these sanctions while advancing US interests in the process.

US interests are better served through negotiation. Shortly after Trump announced the United States would jettison the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified that Iran had not pursued nuclear enrichment beyond the levels agreed to in the deal. As of November 2020, that is no longer true.

With the Israelis viewed as responsible for the killing of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the potential for a regional conflict over Iran’s nuclear program has grown. Returning to diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program is more urgent than ever.

The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran.
MAJID ASGARIPOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Critics of the nuclear deal typically contend that the deal didn’t deliver any concessions on Iran’s proxy network nor curtail its ballistic missile program. A new deal, according to this argument, should rectify this.

Biden cannot attain an all-encompassing deal. Nor should he attempt to. Biden needs to hastily erect a foundation to build off of while he has a window of opportunity. That means a piecemeal strategy that prioritizes a return to the 2015 agreement.

From there, reestablished US credibility and good faith implementation of the deal can serve as a basis to negotiate on other issues. But preconditioning a nuclear deal on these other issues is a gambit that’s more likely to stifle negotiations.

Likewise, continuing maximum pressure in the early process of negotiation does not give the US an upper hand.

What US officials refer to as “leverage” prompted a countervailing force from Iranian officials who are now trying to similarly gain the upper hand by enriching larger quantities of uranium. This is a game of chicken which Biden should recognize is unlikely to pay any dividends and far more likely to bring the US or Israel to the brink of war.

The US benefits from returning to negotiations. To do that, Biden need only revoke the authority with which Trump sanctioned Iran. The move would restore American credibility in the short term, which Biden needs for a deal. Having this diplomatic foundation would enable Biden to then negotiate on other issues.

Biden should resist the urging for an all-encompassing agreement. If it’s all or nothing, we’re likely to get nothing.

Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society where he researches Iranian proxies.