Given the issues of nuclear proliferation, ballistic missiles, militia activity and the actions of its leaders, Iran was set to be a pressing matter for whoever became the next US president. However, when Joe Biden and his administration come into office on January 20, they will come with personal experiences and legacies that make it even more urgent to shape an Iran policy and action it promptly.
While still a candidate, President-elect Biden announced that he would rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, adopted under former president Barack Obama and since scuppered by President Donald Trump. Mr Biden reiterated that intention in an interview with the New York Times last month, adding that he would also work towards a more comprehensive plan that tackles Iran's expansionist policies and ballistic missile programme – the latter contravening UN Resolution 2231. Despite Mr Biden's good intentions, it is unclear what incentive Iran's government would have to negotiate if sanctions are lifted and the nuclear deal is restored.
Whether it can be restored is another matter, as Tehran has stepped up uranium enrichment and refuses inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Furthermore, the nuclear deal’s sunset clause means restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment would be lifted after 2025 – four years from now.
Iran will be keen to set itself into a strong negotiating position. Now that Mr Biden has declared a return to the nuclear deal as a policy aim, Iranian leaders can drag their feet and seek advantages before granting him an early “policy win”. Given past experiences, it wouldn’t be surprising if Iran chose to test the incoming Biden administration. Be it seizing another tanker in regional waters or having one of their proxies target the US embassy in Baghdad, the generals in Tehran will want to see how the new administration will react to their tactics.
Iranian projection of power is often targeted at the US, but played out in the Arab world. Be it in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen, the Iranian regime negotiates is position with respect to the US and its allies in the region through proxies on the ground. While members of the Biden administration, including the President-elect himself, have a problematic legacy in Iraq and Syria, they will look for opportunities to distinguish their new administration from those of both Mr Obama and Mr Trump.
In reality though, their options will be dependent on the approach adopted: to appease or stand up to Iran. The nominee for the position of Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, witnessed first-hand Iran’s role in the region while he was head of US Central Command (Centom) from 2013-2016. In a hearing at the House of Representatives Committee of Armed Services in March 2015, and before the signing of the nuclear deal, Gen Austin said that Iran “continues to act as a belligerent force in the region, primarily through its Quds forces and through support to proxy actors, such as Lebanese Hezbollah. And while we are hopeful that an acceptable agreement will be reached with Iran with respect to its nuclear programme, either way, whether we reach an agreement or we don't reach an agreement, Iran will continue to present a challenge for us going forward”.
While an agreement tackling Iran’s nuclear programme is vital, it will not be enough. In Gen Austin’s words at the same hearing: "The leaders in the region certainly believe that Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon is a threat to the region. But they are also equally concerned about Iran's ability to mine the Straits, Iran's cyber capabilities, Iran's ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability or ballistic missile capability, as well as the activity of their Quds forces, which is unhelpful. And so whether we get a deal or don't get a deal, I think they will still share those concerns.”
Six years later, all of these elements remain true. Whether Gen Austin and the wider US administration will heed those warnings will be of great interest to Arab leaders, and to the Iranian regime.
The Biden administration has several senior officials who have worked on the Iran file in a number of remits. The two men who first started negotiating in secret with Iran in 2013, William Burns and Jake Sullivan, are now set to become, respectively, Director of the CIA and National Security Advisor.
They will have the advantage of knowing Iranian officials and their style of negotiations, but they could potentially have the disadvantage of trying to save the legacy of their earlier success in negotiating a new nuclear deal. Iranian officials may be hedging that the new administration will rush to reinstate the deal without much scrutiny; however, both Mr Burns and Mr Sullivan would be aware of the potential damage that would cause to the US and its negotiating position.
Iran will have its own internal dynamics to contend with in the coming months, with presidential elections slated for June. The usual positioning of “doves” and “hawks” among the candidates will be expected, as the election campaign picks up pace.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is angling to take over the presidency, with a number of members from the IRGC having declared their candidacy. Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, is eying the presidency and has garnered much support from senior clerics.
While the jostling over candidates is far from over, some of the rhetoric from Tehran in the coming weeks will aim to push the Biden administration into early negotiations to “help” the so-called “reformers” at the expense of the more hardline candidates.
That argument should not be a distraction from long-term goals. The end result remains that the Supreme Leader calls the shots and the IRGC implements his policies. As the Biden administration sets its Iran policy and actions it, that reality should be at the top of its considerations.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief at The National