Biden is picking up where Trump left off on Iran, and it won't go any better this time around

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Biden is picking up where Trump left off on Iran, and it won't go any better this time around
Protesters burn pictures of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during a demonstration in Tehran, November 28, 2020. Majid Asgaripour/WANA via REUTERS
  • As talks with Iran stall, the Biden administration is looking to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
  • This would effectively continue Trump's "maximum pressure" approach.
  • As with Trump's pressure campaign, Biden's attempt is unlikely to change Iran's thinking.
  • Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

The Biden administration is seeking to further target Iran's oil exports and limit its import of drone and missile components. Amid an impasse at the Vienna nuclear negotiations, it's important to reevaluate whether these sanctions further US interests.

This is a continuation of the "maximum pressure" strategy that started in 2018 and hasn't worked. Despite imposing over 1,500 sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports, domestic manufacturing, banking, and other sectors, US sanctions failed to produce a better deal or deter Iran.

To the contrary, Iran went from having less than 300 kg of enriched uranium in May 2018, when the sanctions campaign began, to having over 3,200 kg in June 2021. Regional security is more precarious than before, with Iranian attacks on oil tankers continuing from 2019 to the present.

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During the same time period, public discontent in Iran helped crush any figures open to diplomacy and delivered both the parliament and presidency to hardliner factions. Sanctions have not delivered a better deal and have exacerbated the same problems which the Biden administration is now seeking to fix.

Given the Biden administration's initial push to drop sanctions and pivot to diplomacy, this is likely a carrot and stick strategy to put pressure on Iran to quickly agree to US terms at Vienna.

Biden is picking up where Trump left off on Iran, and it won't go any better this time around
The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran. MAJID ASGARIPOUR/AFP/Getty Images

But Iran views the carrot-and-stick approach differently than the US does. Iranian leadership doesn't see sanctions relief as an incentive to avoid further punishment, but as a ruse so Washington can redouble the punishment and extract more concessions.

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Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said as much in his recent admonitions of the outgoing Rouhani administration. Washington doubling down on maximum pressure is likely to feed into this narrative and encourage Iran to manufacture its drone and missile components domestically.

Iran's ballistic missiles are only one prong of its asymmetric defense strategy. If the US makes ballistic missiles untenable as a defense strategy, then Iran has only two options left: a nuclear weapon or an expansion of its militia network.

Those that lambaste Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism promote bellicose policies that encourage this. Iran won't simply pacify and decide to forego defense. It, like any other state, will pursue riskier ways of deterring the United States if it can't do so conventionally.

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The United States already prioritizes preventing nuclear proliferation at all costs.

Given that this is the top priority, it's not sensible to take away one of Iran's only alternatives. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent. Targeting Iran's ability to make conventional missiles incentivizes them to race for a nuclear breakout capability.

This both encourages other powers in the region to follow suit and makes an Israeli-Iran conflict more likely.

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Biden is picking up where Trump left off on Iran, and it won't go any better this time around
Reuters/Raheb Homavandi

At a time when militia attacks against US forces are escalating, targeting Iran's domestic arsenal is likely to worsen the problem of rocket attacks. Iran's pressure on these groups to exercise restraint may give way to a hands-off policy.

These groups are already incensed at the US for its deceptively labeled withdrawal plan and likely to take any opportunity to strike. Provoking Iran may cause them to delegate authority to groups that are less deterrable and more open to taking risks against US forces.

Sanctions run the risk of causing another war in the Middle East. They precipitated the Iran-US tit-for-tat in 2019, which nearly started a war following the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. There's no reason to pursue a strategy that carries the risks of intolerable costs in blood and treasure.

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The US should not double down on the same sanctions strategy that has undermined American interests consistently for the past three years. US interests would be better served by going for minimalist aims at the Vienna talks, namely nuclear compliance in exchange for sanctions relief.

This should be coupled with a substantive, rather than symbolic, withdrawal from Iraq. This eliminates the risks to US forces, disincentivizes Iran from needing its missile program altogether, and insulates the region from a potential nuclear arms race.

President Joe Biden correctly recognized the limits of US power to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. This pragmatism should extend to US dealings with Iran.

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The sanctions strategy that failed for President Donald Trump will also fail for Biden. If Biden seeks to extricate the US from the forever wars, he should end the economic warfare as well.

Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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