US-Iran Relations Loom as Biden’s First Foreign Policy Test

When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in later this month, he will be tasked with immediately addressing a rampaging public health crisis, a shaky economy, and potential gridlock in Congress. Faced with these pressing domestic crises, there is little reason to believe Biden will spend much political capital on foreign affairs in his early days.

Despite these considerations, there is one area of policy that President-elect Biden will likely have to address sooner rather than later: relations with Iran. The government in Tehran has been vocal about its willingness to return to the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if the incoming Biden Administration agrees also to return to upholding that deal and compensating Iran for the economic damage done by the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. However, there are signs that Tehran’s leaders are not simply going to sit back and wait for Washington to weigh its options and decide how to proceed. They want sanctions relief and a return to the JCPOA immediately; indeed, recent actions appear calculated to prod the Biden Administration into making decisions quickly upon inauguration and installment of its top leadership.

Iran has recently taken actions that its leadership likely views as either retaliatory or intended to strengthen its negotiating position. For example, it forced a South Korean oil tanker to change course and sail to Iran, which comes as Tehran and Seoul have feuded over the latter’s freezing of Iranian assets. The Iranian government also notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it began enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, a sharp increase from the roughly 3.65 percent purity Iran had been producing while all sides were adhering to the terms of the JCPOA. There has also been chatter that the governments in the United States, Israel, and Iraq have raised concerns that Iranian-backed or Iranian-supported militias in Iraq and Yemen could target military personnel. That fear was particularly acute as mourners of General Qassem Soleimani marked the one-year anniversary of his assassination by the United States in Iraq—an act for which many are still waiting for Tehran to retaliate. In total, it appears that officials in Iran have thus far avoided provoking a major confrontation with the United States or other regional actors, but it is clear that those same officials are actively seeking to make life uncomfortable for Washington and its partners while trying to stake out a more advantageous negotiating position. One might also suspect that decision makers in Iran will continue to amp up the pressure as they want the Biden team to roll back Trump Administration policies soon.

The already difficult decisions facing the incoming Biden Administration are compounded by the fact that there are factions both domestically and abroad that abhor the idea of Biden reversing Trump-era policies and thawing relations with Tehran. Less than 20 days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Trump Administration continues its “maximum pressure” campaign, levying more sanctions on entities supporting Iranian industries and solidifying its military presence around Iran as a show of force. Its efforts are in no small part intended to curtail the Biden Administration’s ability to offer concessions to Iran in exchange for returning to the JCPOA. Congressional Republicans, like Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, have been publicly opposed to the idea of returning to the deal, although many more Democrats support Biden’s proposed effort to do so.

Abroad, it is certain that states like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will try to exert private and public pressure on the Biden Administration during any negotiations with Iran. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already made it clear it expects not only to be consulted while the United States and Iran negotiate, but to be a formal partner to any deal. Though these states, to varying degrees, maintain that they would support a broader JCPOA-like agreement, their vigorous lobbying against any diplomatic outreach to Tehran calls that commitment into question. Nevertheless, with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the Israel Defense Forces warning of conflict with Iran, the time for Biden to reach out to Iran should be shortly after he is inaugurated and his State Department is staffed.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

On the domestic front, the 117th Congress was seated on January 3, 2021, with Democrats maintaining a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and Senate Republicans doing the same in that chamber. However, January 5 marked a double runoff election for both of Georgia’s US Senate seats and those races will help decide which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years. As one of them has been called for a Democrat, the other is leaning toward the other Democratic candidate, thus possibly giving incoming President Biden a friendly Senate.

In addition to that special runoff election, a joint session of Congress convenes on January 6 in order to formally count the certified state election results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This is usually a drama-free affair, but with Congressional Republicans parroting President Donald Trump’s debunked conspiracies about rampant voter fraud and electoral irregularities, a sizable minority has vowed to turn the typically innocuous counting process into a loyalty test for President Trump. The effort to reject states’ results is expected to fail, but the president’s most ardent supporters in Congress are likely to use the count to further undermine faith not only in the last election, but in future ones as well.

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act. After a lengthy legislative process and two veto override votes, the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act finally became law. Descriptions of the bill can be found in previous Arab Center Washington DC reports (see here and here).

Joint Resolution of Disapproval of Proposed Saudi Arms Sale. On the first day of the new year, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. J. Res. 82, disapproving of the Trump Administration’s proposed export of 7,500 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. Although the legislation was introduced in 2021, it is actually considered to have been submitted during the final days of the 116th Congress, meaning Senator Menendez or his colleagues would have to reintroduce the joint resolution, now that the 117th Congress has started, if they want to try and restrict the proposed deal.

Online Terrorism Prevention Act. On the last day of the 116th Congress, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) introduced the Online Terrorism Prevention Act in an effort to force social media companies to disclose the presence of foreign terrorism organizations on their platforms. In a press release, Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick specifically point out that Hamas and Hezbollah had active Arabic and English social media accounts as recently as 2019. The representatives must reintroduce this legislation now that a new Congress has begun.

Taking Away CIA’s Drone Authority. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 196 which, although the specific language has not been made public, intends to take away the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) authority to carry out drone strikes. Instead, Burgess’s bill would shift that authority to the Department of Defense. As previous media reports confirm, the Trump Administration had expanded the spy agency’s authority to execute the lethal strikes and it intended to carry them out in Arab states like Yemen and Libya. However, CIA strikes are shrouded in secrecy—even when innocent civilians are killed—while the Pentagon has to be more transparent when strikes go wrong.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

New HFAC Chair Eyes Resumption of Aid to Palestine. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the press recently that he supports restoring aid to the Palestinians. He framed it as an important step for preserving the prospects of a two-state solution and for supporting and protecting human rights. However, Meeks steadfastly refused to consider adjusting aid to Israel if it is found to be violating Palestinian rights while using US funds.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Administration Officials Flock to the Middle East and North Africa. As they wind down their time in office, a slate of Trump Administration officials set off for visits to multiple states in the region. White House official Jared Kushner traveled to Saudi Arabia for the signing of an agreement between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to ease the nearly three-and-a-half-year internal rift. He later attended the GCC annual summit. State Department official Joel Rayburn was scheduled to travel to the UAE and Jordan while the itinerary of Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker is set to take him to Jordan, Algeria, and Morocco. Finally, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, is currently on travel to Bahrain and Qatar to discuss counterterrorism and security cooperation.

In other personnel news, the State Department announced that it had created and staffed a special envoy position dedicated to furthering economic normalization between Israel and the few Arab countries with which it has reached agreements. The new special envoy, who may only serve a few weeks until the new administration is inaugurated, is Aryeh Lightstone.

US, Israel Vote against United Nations Budget. The United Nations overwhelmingly voted to approve a new budget this week. Two states voted against the proposal: the United States and Israel. The Trump Administration announced it voted against the budget proposal because of disagreements with the body over Iran and because it believes the UN is biased against Israel. The budget was fully supported by167 other countries, however.

US Announces Settlements, Waivers Related to Sanctions. The US Treasury announced a pair of settlements with foreign banks that must pay fines for aiding sanctioned individuals in Syria and Sudan. A France-based bank agreed to pay more than $8.5 million for violating US sanctions over 125 times. A Jeddah-based bank agreed to pay over $650,000 for facilitating transactions for Syrian or Sudanese entities between 2011 and 2014.

In another development, the US government agreed to renew a sanctions waiver for the government of Iraq that allows Baghdad to continue importing Iranian gas. The waiver lasts for three months, so it will be reviewed next by the incoming Biden Administration.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here