The conditions for achieving a “clean return” are not as clear as many would hope. But in view of the strategic backdrop explored in this paper, a “critical early priority” must be returning to the 2015 nuclear entente. If one accepts these premises, the Biden administration faces the challenging task of evaluating how to engage with an increasingly bellicose Tehran whilst lifting its stranglehold on Iran’s economy with the clear intention of returning to the 2015 deal before it is too late.
BROADLY SPEAKING, sanctions on Iran fall into two categories: primary and secondary sanctions. Primary sanctions are prohibitions that apply to U.S. entities transacting between the United States and Iran. Secondary sanctions extend to non-U.S. persons, with the implication being that those who do not abide by the sanctions are cut off from transacting with the United States.
The United States has put into effect a robust sanctions regime on account of Iran’s nuclear program, support for proxy armed groups, advancing ballistic missiles program, and egregious human rights violations.
As part of the JCPOA, the Obama administration agreed to lift secondary sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program (the EU dropped all nuclear-related sanctions). The 2015 JCPOA did not lift sanctions taken for non-nuclear-related reasons.
For its part, the Trump administration imposed primary and secondary sanctions on Tehran, targeting Iran’s heavy industry (petroleum, construction, manufacturing, mining, and textiles), as well as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, ironically, Zarif himself.
The Biden administration may wish to reverse both these primary and secondary sanctions imposed by the previous administration. Next, the administration may wish to consider proffering incentives, in the form of sanctions relief, in sectors that are crucial to Iran’s economy such as banking assets in South Korea, aviation, maritime, and mining sectors. This is not a novel idea, to be sure. Prior to the diplomatic talks that gave rise to the 2015 JCPOA, the United States and Iran drafted a list of persons and entities that could be relieved from prior sanctions. Iran, the United States, and the EU will certainly engage in a similar process of negotiating sanctions relief in return for compliance. On this point, it is interesting to note that Zarif contemplated the prospect of having the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, synchronize diplomatic efforts to return to “strict” compliance.
MORE DEXTEROUS diplomacy towards Tehran should mix carrots and sticks to draw Iran into a long-term dialogue on issues of concern to the United States and its allies. The use of incentives implies a rebuke of the policy of isolation. As it relates to Iran, economic integration (primary sanction relief) and political integration, in exchange for verifiable political ends should be the guiding diplomatic principle.
Of growing significance to any strategy towards Iran is the simple fact that Iran has a disproportionately young and well-educated population (nearly half of Iran’s population of 83 million is under thirty years old), with a strong cultural preference towards the West, situated at the crossroads of Asia’s emerging markets. Consequently, the Iran of the next two decades is uniquely positioned to promote the interests of the United States in a stable and economically vibrant future—or, alternatively, to sow greater chaos under the Sino security umbrella.
Of special importance to U.S. officials presently, a cooperative Iran can be a critical partner in the aftermath of the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. Though an ironic point, Iranian objectives in Afghanistan align almost perfectly with postwar U.S. interests. Indeed, officials in Tehran prefer a stable government in Kabul free of fundamentalist Taliban control to blunt the tide of Sunni extremism in the region. Furthermore, both sides have prioritized countering narcotrafficking in Afghanistan—the main lifeline for guerrilla warfare in the country. Interestingly, too, a cooperative Iran can serve as a natural balancer to Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, an increasingly desirous proposition for Islamabad-wary officials in Washington. This point has been lost in contemporary debates. It is worth remembering that Iran played a critical powerbroker role in prewar Afghanistan when it convinced the Northern Alliance to support Hamid Karzai.
But the geostrategic merits of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran are not merely confined to the Eurasian landmass. The seemingly implacable Vladimir Putin has taken great advantage of an isolated Iran. Iran and Russia are natural competitors in the global commodities market and vie over both market share and resources as, for example, in the Caspian Sea. In addition, Moscow has used an isolated Iran as a “last-resort” market for selling outdated weaponry, jets, and machinery. Denying Moscow a full-fledged ally would rebalance the region’s power centers in favor of U.S. interests.
Curiously, a fundamental rethinking of U.S.-Iran relations would provide an opportunity for greater consensus among America’s traditional allies. Indeed, Westminster’s “integrated review” of its security and foreign policy placed a premium on competition with China, on global trade as a means of establishing diplomatic ties, and on becoming “the broadest and most integrated presence” of any European state in the Indo-Pacific. These core interests can be effectively pursued under both bilateral and multilateral channels with Iran.
THERE IS an ugly reality about the emerging world order, but it is a reality that must be confronted head-on, nonetheless. The age of relative peace between the world’s great powers is ebbing away and making room for the dawn of a new era—where great and middling nations increasingly act on the world stage according to their perceived national interests. The rules-based order to which we have grown so familiar—and of which we are the proudest purveyors—has confused rather than clarified America’s role in the world today. Looking ahead, U.S. officials should take a clear-eyed view of the nation’s grand strategic objectives and align means and ends in an adaptive and forward-looking manner. The time for revamping foreign policy debates in Washington is long overdue.
As it relates to Iran, a forward-looking foreign policy would see Iran as a Eurasian country, not a Middle Eastern one. China understands that Iran is a major regional power located at the crossroads of the Middle East and Central Asia—an area that is important to its BRI. The United States should avoid paralysis by analysis. The strategic context makes clear that time is of the essence, and if social tensions ratchet up once again, without prospects of a breakthrough with the West, Iran might just snuggle up to the dragon. The consequence of this is not that Iran will get a second lease on life—for the same would result if it were to cut a deal with the United States—but that in one case a major step would have been taken towards the China containment strategy, and in the other, it would be a major setback to that strategy, compounding the setback from nuclear disengagement and the threat of proliferation.
Lyes Mauni Jalali is a JD candidate at Yale Law school.