Biden wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. His approach is far more likely to work.
A screen showing President Trump and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tokyo, on Jan. 8. (Koji Sasahara/AP)
By Philip H. Gordon and Ariane M. Tabatabai
October 14, 2020 at 7:00 AM EDT
If former vice president Joe Biden wins the White House, he says America will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration that the Trump administration abandoned. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal,” Biden wrote last month, “the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” to strengthen and extend its provisions. He recognizes there is no magical formula to quickly turn Iran into a peaceful, cooperative democracy. But he says his approach would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, avoid potential military escalation, reconcile the United States with European allies Britain, France and Germany (who, along with China and Russia, remain in the deal), and still allow all of them to use tools such as diplomacy, targeted sanctions and deterrence to address issues such as Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, regional interference and human rights violations.
Compare his approach to that of President Trump, who told Rush Limbaugh last Friday that Iran has “been put on notice: If you fuck around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before. And they understand that.”
Trump prefers to use “maximum pressure” in the form of belligerent rhetoric, diplomatic isolation and unilateral sanctions to try to force dramatic changes in Tehran. He insists that regime change isn’t his aim, and regularly muses about being able to secure a deal with Iran’s leaders within “the first month” of his reelection. But some administration officials have been more candid about their real goals, noting, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, that while Iran’s government may not change course, “the people can change the government” and that Washington is willing to help them do it. The apparent logic is that sanctions will squeeze Iran’s economy so hard that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow the regime.
If maximum pressure were likely to work, it would make sense to pursue it: An Iranian government that respected the human rights of its citizens; abandoned its nuclear ambitions; stopped fomenting violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; and that was ready to cooperate politically, economically and diplomatically with the United States would be an unequivocally good thing. But Trump’s approach is based on fantasies about the capacity of economic sanctions or limited force to oust hostile regimes, and a misunderstanding of the history and politics of Iran. History shows that Trump’s approach is more likely to lead to confrontation and chaos than it is to regime change or fundamental shift in Iran’s stance.
It is undeniable that U.S. secondary sanctions have deeply damaged Iran’s economy and inflicted great pain on its frustrated population. With its oil exports dramatically reduced, its economy continues to contract. But even after several years of implementation, U.S. sanctions have not come close to delivering the administration’s stated goals. No new nuclear deal has been reached to replace the one Trump withdrew from, and no talks are even on the horizon — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said he won’t negotiate, lest Trump politically “benefit from negotiations” and just this week reiterated his vow to resist sanctions through national economic self-reliance. Nor has Iran’s posture changed for the better, at least according to the Trump administration, which regularly recites a litany of Iranian misdeeds and acknowledges that Iran’s nuclear program has moved forward since the United States left the deal. Nor, despite public protests, is there any sign of imminent regime collapse. Far from changing its ways for the better, the regime is brutally cracking down on an already suffering population.
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Meanwhile, the United States has become isolated from its allies, as demonstrated most recently by its humiliating defeat at the United Nations, when only one member of the 15-member Security Council, the Dominican Republic, supported indefinitely embargoing arms sales to Iran. The European participants in the nuclear deal all still see it not only as the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but also to avoid the humanitarian consequences and potential for military escalation they believe result from the Trump administration’s maximum pressure.
It should come as no surprise that sanctions have failed to bring down the regime, as the historical record in the region suggests there is little reason to believe that they would: In Iraq, after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, draconian U.S. and international sanctions constrained Saddam Hussein’s efforts to rebuild his military and curbed his nuclear ambitions, but they didn’t loosen his grip on power. In Libya, sanctions helped persuade Moammar Gaddafi to abandon nuclear weapons, but they didn’t threaten his rule. And in Syria, the sanctions applied in 2011 diminished its economy and deepened public discontent, but they have still not dislodged the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Ordinary citizens are rarely able to rise up and oust the ruthless rulers willing to kill them, and dictators can never be persuaded to give up power with sanctions because they value that power more than they value economic relief for their citizens.
Even the use of limited military force or armed assistance to opposition groups doesn’t guarantee successful regime change. In Libya in 2011, it took months of NATO airstrikes before Gaddafi fell — leaving chaos in his wake. In Syria, outside powers funneled weapons and training to the opposition for years, yet Assad still stands. In some rare cases where the U.S. helped oust a regime by arming opposition fighters — such as its support in the 1980s for Afghan Mujahedin post-Soviet invasion — it has produced unintended consequences such as enduring civil war, the advent of the Taliban and the expansion of the global jihadist movement.
The faith Trump has placed in maximum pressure also runs counter to Iran’s history: Since before the overthrow of Iran’s monarchy and its establishment as an Islamic republic, Iranian leaders — despite their differing approaches and internal rivalries — have often held similar beliefs about their country’s place in the world. Outside pressure can influence Iranian policy and has done so in the past, but only when the pressure was enormous and the objectives realistic. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s regime was willing to suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties over eight years before agreeing to a cease-fire that left Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini firmly in power. And before agreeing, in 2012, to return to the negotiating table to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear program, it took American leadership to align the international community against Tehran to lead it to compromise. In either case, had capitulation or regime change been the goal, the pressure would not have worked.
The Iranian regime has lost much of its legitimacy over the past four decades. Today, it is weak, divided and domestically unpopular. But the regime doesn’t derive its hold on power from its legitimacy or inclusivity any more than did Hussein in Iraq or Assad in Syria. It maintains power through violent repression, to which it resorted in 2009 when large crowds took to the street to protest fraudulent presidential elections, and again a decade later when social and economic protests broke out in multiple Iranian cities.
Even if Trump, in a second term, were somehow to change the regime with military force or support for opposition, the prospects for peace and stability in a diverse and divided country of over 80 million people would be poor. The history of America’s regime-change efforts in the region shows that the costs of such endeavors are always higher, the results less appealing and the unintended consequences impossible to predict.
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Despite this reality, Trump, Pompeo, political figures such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former national security adviser John Bolton, and various analysts have pushed for regime change. They’ve advocated ever more comprehensive sanctions, material support for the Iranian opposition, including rival ethnic groups, and even American military strikes, all designed to weaken and eventually topple the regime. In a Washington Post op-ed this year, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh called for “relentless pressure that with time cracks the regime.”
Trump notched what he saw as a win when he ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani this year — Soleimani was Iran’s most powerful military figure, overseeing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operations throughout the Middle East. His death rocked Iran’s political establishment back on its heels, but made its attitude more hostile, not more acquiescent to U.S. demands. Far from being more secure because Iran has now been deterred, attacks by Iran-backed militia groups since Soleimani was killed have rendered U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iraq so vulnerable that the Trump administration has contemplated shuttering the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
If the goal was to show that a global power could exert its might against a regional power, that was made clear. But if the goal was weakening Iran’s theocracy or ending its regional meddling, the Soleimani attack failed.
To presume that maximum pressure will lead to Iranian capitulation would be to once again pursue a foreign policy based on hope rather than experience. That approach might force Iran back to the negotiating table, but it could just as easily lead to continued expansion of its nuclear program, new efforts by a desperate regime to lash out with attacks on its neighbors, and on Americans and American interests in the Middle East, widespread suffering for millions of Iranians, and an American or Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, followed by probable Iranian retaliation against U.S. and allied targets.
The alternative isn’t to give Iran a free pass. It is, as Biden has proposed, to contain its nuclear ambitions by enforcing the JCPOA; continuing to deter Iran from aggression in the region by maintaining U.S. defense commitments and deployments; working closely with partners in the region and beyond to counter Iran’s expansionist regional agenda and buying time to allow the country’s own dynamic civil society to work towards positive change. Diplomacy, deterrence and arms control offer no guarantees — and don’t necessarily make a great campaign slogan — but they’re almost certain to work out better in the long run than the risky pursuit of maximalist objectives that has little basis in history or logic.
Philip H. Gordon is the Council on Foreign Relations Mary and David Boies foreign policy senior fellow. He was special assistant to the president and White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama, and is author of ““Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.” Follow
Ariane M. Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, and an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University. She is the author of ““No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy.” Follow
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