November 16, 2020

IntelBrief: U.S. Election Roils Iran Policy

President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Trump administration is attempting to complicate efforts by the incoming Biden administration to alter the ‘maximum pressure’ policy toward Iran. 
  • The Administration’s additional sanctions will need to be rolled back if the Biden administration seeks to rejoin the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal.
  • A core element of the Trump strategy is to base many of its additional sanctions on Iran’s support for international terrorism.  
  • Iran’s violations of the 2015 nuclear agreement will need to be reversed if the United States is to re-enter the pact. 

The outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election is producing a tussle between the outgoing Trump Administration and the incoming Biden administration over policy toward a key U.S. adversary, Iran. Iran policy was one of the few foreign policy issues on which there were sharp differences between President Trump and now President-elect Joseph Biden. In 2018, President Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal, negotiated by the Obama/Biden administration, in favor of a ‘maximum pressure’ that applies sweeping U.S. sanctions intended to collapse Iran’s economy. In a September 13, 2020 editorial, Biden stated an intent to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran comes back into compliance with its nuclear commitments under the accord.   

The issue has caused increasing tension during 2020 as the Trump administration has announced a steady stream of additional sanctions against Iran, and has pledged to continue adding sanctions until the January 20, 2021 inauguration. The moves appear to be intended to complicate Biden’s effort to rejoin the Iran deal, which has been kept alive, although just barely, by the other parties to the accord – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. Tehran has demanded - and the incoming Administration recognizes - that restoring the agreement to its full implementation will require the U.S. to lift all sanctions re-imposed or newly imposed since the U.S. left the accord. In the days since the U.S. election, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran (and Venezuela), Eliot Abrams, has pointedly warned the incoming Administration against easing sanctions on Iran on the grounds that doing so would reduce U.S. leverage to force a change in Iranian behavior. His warnings followed a visit to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in which he coordinated efforts to oppose any attempt by the incoming Administration to re-engage with Iran. 

Some Trump administration steps might be difficult, although not impossible, for the Biden administration to unwind. The Trump administration has made increasing use of sanctions authorities that are based on Iran’s support for groups that commit acts of terrorism. In 2019 and 2020, it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under a 1996 law and Iran’s Central Bank as a terrorism-supporting entity under a 2001 Executive Order. Revoking both designations will require an interagency discussion process that will give Iran hardliners within the U.S. foreign policy and counterterrorism bureaucracy an opportunity to challenge the ‘delisting’ of these entities. On the other hand, the Trump administration has used the terrorism justification to sanction Iranian economic entities such as steel plants, Mahan Airlines, regional oil and general goods trading companies, and Lebanese banks. The new U.S Administration could reasonably argue that its predecessor applied terrorism sanctions authorities too broadly. And, many of the new sanctions imposed on Tehran have been based on executive orders and not laws passed by Congress; an executive order can be revoked at any time. The Biden administration might also need to formally withdraw the Trump administration’s October 2020 insistence that it has triggered a ‘snap back’ of all U.N. sanctions on Iran, although the U.N. Security Council did not recognize that declaration and has not implemented it.  

In order for the Biden administration to return the United States to the deal, Tehran will have to reverse its post-U.S. withdrawal violations of its nuclear commitments under the accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in early November that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium is about 8 times as large as the amount allowed under the accord – enough material, if enriched to weapons-grade purity, to produce two nuclear weapons. Iran also recently confirmed that it had begun constructing a new facility, in a hardened mountain location, to assemble advanced centrifuges. The new facility’s status would have to be negotiated as part of a Biden administration re-entry into the nuclear deal. The challenges that both Iran and the Biden administration will need to overcome in order to fully restore and reinvigorate the 2015 nuclear agreement appear significant but not insurmountable.