Iran between Avenging Soleimani and Engaging Biden

Two events in January serve as reminders of how US-Iran dynamics are pulled in two different directions: the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, and the first-year anniversary of the killing of Iran’s al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. In both Washington and Tehran, there are difficult choices ahead in deciding how to address the legacy of former President Donald Trump on US-Iran relations.

For the new Biden Administration, the question of what to do with the Islamic Republic has a domino effect that will decide broader US foreign policy in the Middle East. Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran included the 2018 exit of the United States from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unprecedented American sanctions on Tehran, and the assassination of Soleimani in Iraq. While these measures have helped to deter Iranian behavior, they have unlocked Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities. In addition, they have made Iraq’s environment hostile for US troops and deepened the state of disorder in the Levant and Yemen. Trump’s impulsive decision to kill Soleimani deterred Iran in the short term without offering a larger US strategy that could reap benefits from such a blow to Iran’s regional influence. The Biden Administration should develop such a strategy by capitalizing on Trump’s maximum pressure and engage Iran with better negotiating cards.

The Biden Administration faces two dilemmas: setting the criteria for what compliance means in the US quest to deter Iran’s nuclear activities, and determining how to tackle the Iranian regional challenge.

The most significant shift has already occurred with US and Iranian officials reestablishing the direct communication line that existed during the Barack Obama presidency. This will be useful in preventing potential crises by taking confidence-building measures or making goodwill gestures. As a first step, both sides need to scale back the military alerts and tensions that were predominant in the final stretch of the Trump presidency. It would also be sensible to set the preconditions and parameters of what might be a successful engagement, and this process might take a while. In this context, the Biden Administration faces two dilemmas: setting the criteria for what compliance means in the US quest to deter Iran’s nuclear activities, and determining how to tackle the Iranian regional challenge. Similarly, the dilemma for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is how to save the Iranian economy and not cave to US pressure, and whether to abandon the question of avenging Soleimani, both in rhetoric and in action.

The First Dilemma: Compliance and Deterrence

The definition of nuclear compliance remains ambiguous. It requires making a judgment regarding whether the JCPOA is still a valid stand-alone agreement or if there is a need to reset nuclear renegotiations by adding new provisions, most notably concerning Iran’s ballistic missiles. The ongoing backdoor diplomacy is most probably focusing on what steps should be taken first, and the challenge might be who will give the impression of conceding to the other. The American calculation largely depends on Washington’s own intelligence assessment of the “breakout” period, or the time frame for Iran to secure the capability to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

When it comes to deterrence, nearly 48 hours after Biden’s inauguration, Khamenei tweeted a threat to Trump on January 22, which partially shows that the Iranian regime continues to blame Trump for the hardline policy his administration followed with Iran and is focused on engaging the Biden Administration. The killing of Soleimani does not seem to dominate Iran’s foreign policy calculations despite the rhetoric out of Tehran. Similarly, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah seemed careful in an interview1 last December 27, noting that those who killed Soleimani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Iran’s nuclear scientist who was assassinated on November 27, 2020) “should be punished wherever they are” and this response is “a matter of time.” Nasrallah added that “the axis of resistance” must be cautious in dealing with the last weeks of the Trump Administration “so that we are not drawn into an uncalculated confrontation or a confrontation at a time set by the enemies.”

It might also be difficult for US and Iranian officials to sell their potential renewed rapprochement at home, given the polarization of the last four years. There will be reluctance—if not resistance—to a compromise on how to restore the Iran nuclear deal in both Washington and Tehran. There is division in Iran on how to approach the Biden Administration’s engagement, with moderates preferring to prioritize reviving the Iranian economy and conservatives pushing to avenge the killing of Soleimani and nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh to reestablish deterrence with the United States. Competing perspectives are also present in Washington, with those who want to restore Obama’s legacy and ease regional tensions, and those who advocate maximizing the compromise they can get from the Iranian regime. The US Congress could also object to what most of its members might perceive as unnecessary concessions to Iran.

It might also be difficult for US and Iranian officials to sell their potential renewed rapprochement at home, given the polarization of the last four years.

While the United States concluded its own presidential elections, Iran is now embarking on its own presidential campaign and President Hassan Rouhani, who cannot run for another term, has little time between now and June to advance diplomacy with the Biden Administration. This partially explains Rouhani’s urgency to return to the status quo of 2017. Both Rouhani and Biden have interests in saving the Iran nuclear deal legacy, but it is not clear yet how they can swiftly chart a path forward in the next few months. Israel and the Arab governments that recently normalized relations might also decide to synchronize their efforts to pressure the White House on this matter. Israel could sabotage a US-Iranian rapprochement by unilaterally striking Iranian assets, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps could possibly retaliate by hitting Israeli assets to avenge multiple Israeli attacks in recent years.

Biden’s Second Dilemma: Iran’s Regional Influence

There are obviously regional implications for US-Iranian dynamics. The Levant is awaiting the United States to decide on the path for dealing with Iran, and the Biden Administration should soon enough provide clarity on how post-Trump Washington will tackle this issue. To be sure, much of what might happen in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen depends on the dynamics between the United States and Iran. Any subtle US-Iranian talks could conceivably facilitate forming the Lebanese government, ease pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, or potentially stop Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.

The commander of the US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, who argued in November 2020 that “Iran’s ultimate objective being to eject the United States and our forces from Iraq and the broader Middle East,” spoke after Biden’s inauguration about a “period of opportunity” for US-Iran relations. The Pentagon will have a big say on the US approach in Iraq by attempting to strike a balance between providing a secure environment for US troops in Iraq and not leaving a vacuum for Iran to take unilateral moves to expand its influence.

Marking the first-year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing this month, there was a significant display of public support and solidarity for the Iranian regime in Lebanon and Iraq. This shows that those allies of Tehran can only offer words of support at this stage and it is up to the Iranian regime to decide the path forward with the United States. While Hezbollah can be self-restrained because of its own calculations, it is not clear to what extent al-Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani can exercise control over unruly Iraqi militias, as his predecessor Soleimani was able to do. Iran and its allies across the region have shown restraint after taking numerous hits in the past few years, which weakened their deterrence credibility; at the same time, they have not yet lost their regional grip.

The American assessment of Iran’s breakout period to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, the Iranian presidential election in June, and retaliation against Trump’s killing of Soleimani are all key factors in determining the next steps for US policy in Iran. There are already some positive indications coming out of both Washington and Tehran. The Biden Administration is reviewing possible sanctions relief in response to COVID-19, which could alleviate some of Iran’s pandemic woes. Khamenei approved the revival of bills that would bring Iran into compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog that tracks money laundering and terrorist funding, which shows that the supreme leader is pondering the issue of how best to save the Iranian economy and allow it to do business with foreign banks.

Having both Trump and Soleimani out of the diplomatic discussion and rhetoric might help advance US-Iranian engagement.

There should now be more humility in Tehran after surviving the Trump era. For Iran not to take Biden seriously would be a repeat of Tehran’s approach to Obama, and it could ultimately be counterproductive for the Islamic Republic. Returning to the pre-Trump era might not be feasible when it comes to discussing Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional role, the two benchmarks set by the Trump Administration. Nevertheless, having both Trump and Soleimani out of the diplomatic discussion and rhetoric might help advance US-Iranian engagement. Tehran might need to show flexibility; indeed, time is not on the side of the Iranian regime nor are Iranian resources infinite.

1 Source is in Arabic.