Yes, Iran really matters and so does the Middle East. Despite signs that the Biden administration hopes to downplay U.S engagement in the region, U.S. national interests remain at stake there. Notwithstanding major changes and upheavals, most of these interests continue to be relevant for America’s national security and for its allies and partners. In order to make sense of the reasons for U.S. involvement, and of Biden policy toward Iran, this essay briefly inventories those interests. It then considers initial indications that Biden and his foreign policy team had come to recognize the shortcoming of previous U.S. regional policy, not only that of Donald Trump, but also the Obama administration. This analysis then examines recent policies suggesting that the Biden Middle East policy is in the early stages of repeating the policy mistakes of the Obama administration in which many key participants were personally involved. The essay concludes by assessing the reasons for a failure to absorb lessons and adapt policies to changing realities.
At least four key American national interests have been fixtures since the end of World War II. One is maintaining a secure supply of oil from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February1945 meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King ibn Saud marked the start of what would become a long and close relationship encompassing assured supplies of oil and U.S. security guarantees. To be sure, the fracking revolution of the past decade has greatly lessened America’s own dependence, but oil from the region remains a core national interest, both because of the continuing dependence of much of the world economy, but also because oil supply and price reverberate throughout a global system and affect America as well. Note too that the May 2021 hacking of the Colonial pipeline on the U.S. East Coast provided a sudden reminder about the impact of unexpected disruptions on consumers and businesses.
Three additional national interests also date from the immediate post-World War II era. One is the desirability of preventing the region from falling under control of a hostile power. During the Cold War, it was mainly the Soviet threat. Later concerns have included Iran, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and China. Another interest has been support for America’s allies and partners along with the connection this has to the wider credibility of U.S. commitments. And yet another of these longstanding interests concerns regional stability, periodically disrupted by wars among regional states.
Toward the end of the Cold War and in the early post-Cold War years, at least three additional national interests emerged. Nuclear non-proliferation became important and led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), originally signed in 1968. Counter-terrorism took on greater importance, gradually at first, then dramatically after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In addition, a commitment to democracy and human rights has often received support in official rhetoric, though sporadically in practice.
Within this context, Iran once played a significant role as a key American ally. Under the Shah, it even came to be treated as a major regional security partner. In 1972, President Richard Nixon agreed on major arms shipments and notably called on the Shah to ”protect me.”1 The relationship continued into the administration of Jimmy Carter, who delivered a memorably effusive toast at a December 1977 New Year’s eve dinner in Tehran. In his words, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”2 Yet within less than a year, Iran experienced revolutionary upheaval. The Shah fled the country, never to return, and 1979 saw the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a revolutionary Shi’ite Islamist dictatorship, a contender for Middle East hegemony, and an implacable adversary of the United States, Saudi Arabia, much of the Sunni world, Israel, and even its own people.
During the Obama administration, Biden as vice-president was attentive to Iran policy, particularly the thorny negotiations leading to the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P-5 + 1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Obama saw it as the foreign policy culmination of his second term, the agreement remained controversial enough that he deliberately avoided submitting it to the Congress as a treaty. Its defenders claimed the JCPOA blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, while its detractors pointed to the inadequacy of inspections of military sites, lack of effective limits on ballistic missiles, Iran’s regional predations, and increasing evidence of systematic cheating. Moreover, the JCPOA’s sunset provisions allowing major parts of the agreement to expire over a period of years meant that by 2030 Iran would emerge with modern nuclear facilities capable of enriching weapons grade uranium and of fabricating a nuclear warhead at a time of its own choosing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump opposed the agreement, in May 2018 formally withdrew the U.S. from it, and applied strict sanctions to Iran’s economy, banking system, and energy exports.
Biden came to office promising to restore America’s world role. In a Foreign Affairs article, he had written, “I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the economic future, and once more lead the world.”3 During the presidential campaign and in the initial days of his presidency he reiterated those themes along with a pledge to confront the challenges from China and Russia as well as that of rising authoritarianism. In his initial foreign policy address at the State Department, he proclaimed, “America is back.”4 His Secretary of State nominee, Anthony Blinken, delivered similar remarks in his Senate confirmation hearing and in his initial speeches. Together, Biden and his senior foreign policy team also put some distance between themselves and their predecessors. Repeated references to working with America’s allies and partners marked an obvious contrast to Trump, and language about being “clear-eyed” concerning America’s adversaries suggested an implied separation from Obama.5Expectations about Biden foreign policy were also bolstered by the presence of a deeply experienced foreign policy team and by the fact that Biden himself, with thirty-six years of experience as a senator followed by eight years as vice-president, came to the presidency with more foreign affairs background than anyone since George H.W. Bush in 1989. The impression was reinforced by Biden’s own resolute language about China and Russia as well as his condemnation of China’s Uyghur genocide and his criticism of Putin as a “killer.” And as an indication of pragmatism, Blinken, in his Senate testimony, acknowledged several Trump foreign policy measures, praising the Abraham Accords, supporting the agreement of the Congress and presidency on the Magnitsky Human Rights protocols, retaining the location of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and agreeing with Secretary Pompeo’s characterization of China’s Uyghur policy as genocide.
On Iran, while seeking to return to the JCPOA, Biden and especially Blinken appeared to reach out to the agreement’s critics, showing awareness of problems and the desirability of strengthening it. Blinken described returning to the JCPOA as a “top priority,” but one that would require strict compliance with the original terms, and he emphasized that the administration would work to make it “longer and stronger”. He also acknowledged the importance of engaging Iran on its ballistic missile program and its destabilizing regional activity. In addition, Blinken pledged to consult with Congress and regional allies including Israel and the Gulf states so that they would be “on the takeoff, not the landing” of the Iran negotiations.6A critical technicality of Blinken’s January 2021 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concerned sanctions. He made it clear that in the event Biden suspended nuclear sanctions against Iran as part of a return to the JCPOA, non-nuclear sanctions, i.e., those imposed against Tehran’s behavior on terrorism and missile development, for example on Iran’s Central Bank and National Oil Company, would remain in effect.
With a new president, hope springs eternal, but in the case of the Biden administration, it has not taken long for a gap between expectation and practice to emerge. This appears to apply to the indirect Iranian nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna, but also to issues elsewhere in the region. In its overall strategy, the Biden team has sought to rebalance by reducing America’s foreign and defense policy commitments in the Middle East in order to place more emphasis on confronting China and Russia, even while cooperating with them on common world problems where possible.
Yemen has been an early test of the policy. There, Biden immediately ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations, halted “offensive” arms shipments to the Saudis, and called on them to curtail their intervention. In his State Department speech, he pledged to begin “stepping up our diplomacy to end the war,” and soon thereafter removed the Iran-supported Houthis from the State Department’s terrorism list. But while the administration applied pressure on the Saudis, Tehran showed no signs of curtailing its own arms shipments to the Houthis, who intensified their military campaign within Yemen as well as attacks on Saudi military, oil, and civilian targets.
As for the JCPOA, though Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to prefer delaying an agreement until after presidential elections on June 18, 2021, diplomatic indications increasingly seemed to suggest that the Biden team was determined to return to the nuclear deal without securing significant improvements in its terms. Biden’s own comments and Blinken’s assurances to the Senate about seeking a “longer and stronger” agreement as well as addressing Iran’s missiles and its regional behavior were to be addressed only after both Washington and Tehran returned to full compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. But by abandoning many of the sanctions the U.S. had imposed on Iran, as well as releasing billions of dollars of funds that had been blocked by these and other measures, the Biden negotiators would be relinquishing their bargaining leverage over the Iranians.7Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, witnessing the turn of events and hints of a diplomatic tilt toward their lethal rival, have been less than assured by Biden diplomacy and its implications. Their perspective was tartly expressed by one of Israel’s leading strategic thinkers, writing just after the end of the 11-day missile war between Gaza and Israel, “The United States has sided with Israel on the Gaza issue, which is secondary in importance. On the critical issue of Iran, the Biden government is galloping in a direction that endangers Israel's national security.”8Meanwhile, nearly three years since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia remains singled out for opprobrium. The killing, attributed by U.S. intelligence to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was an appalling act, but Iran, Turkey, China, and Russia have been guilty of far worse and their leaders have not been subjected to the same degree of opprobrium. Ironically, even though under MBS the Saudis have been carrying out the very religious, social, and foreign policy changes the U.S. has long advocated, they remain under heavy pressure from Washington.
On a number of issues, the early months of Biden foreign policy have exhibited far more giving than getting. In Afghanistan, the U.S. presence had declined to some 3500 troops and these were mainly engaged in training and specialized roles without having suffered a single combat death for more than a year. Nonetheless, over the objection of military commanders, Biden committed to withdraw all U.S. forces, saying it would demonstrate “American leadership” by halting the cycle of endless armed conflict.9 Unfortunately, in war, both sides get a say in the outcome and there is no indication that the Taliban has any intention of halting their use of violence and intimidation against Afghanistan’s elected government, its army, its civilian population, and its women.
On Russia, notwithstanding Biden calling Putin a killer, the president agreed to Moscow’s preference for a 5-year extension of the START arms control agreement instead of a limited or conditional acceptance. In addition, while claiming to oppose completion of the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which will double Germany’s dependence on Russia and allow Moscow to minimize transit through Ukraine, Biden chose not to impose sanctions on the Swiss-registered Russian firm in charge of the project. Yet despite the importance of these measures for Russia, the U.S appeared to have received no reciprocal gestures from Moscow.
To this list could also be added decisions to rejoin international institutions including the WHO, UNHWRA, and the UNHRC, and to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority. Each of these institutions has been plagued by corruption, malfeasance, or worse, but in none of these cases did the Biden team insist on reforms as a precondition for returning.
This brief accounting of cases leads to a question. What explains the apparent reluctance to make use of feedback based on practical experience, in other words, an apparent failure to learn? Three broad explanations suggest themselves. First, a large number of the Biden foreign policy personnel served in the Obama administration. Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Wendy Sherman, Avroil Haines, William J. Burns, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Colin Kahl, Biden himself, and others were all involved, especially on the Middle East and Iran. From their recent conduct, there is little reason to conclude that they regard the earlier experience as anything other than successful. Both Biden and Blinken have continued to express panglossian views of the JCPOA, which Biden once claimed, “peacefully removed … the specter of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.”10 Similarly, Blinken recently insisted that the agreement had cut off Iran’s path to nuclear weapons.11Particularly noteworthy here is the appointment of Robert Malley to head the indirect negotiations with Iran in Vienna. Bret Stephens has written in the New York Times that the appointment “beggars belief,” describing Malley as “one of Tehran’s premier apologists in Washington.”12 Misgivings about his role have become quickly evident. In May, he was quoted as saying that Biden would agree to lift terrorism, missile, and human rights sanctions as part of negotiations to rejoin the JCPOA.13Second, since the previous Democratic presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democratic party has shifted to the left. Though still a minority, its progressive wing in the House exercises real influence within the Biden administration. In addition, on social and cultural issues, the effect is even more pronounced and it tends to spill over into foreign policy on issues such as defense spending, arms sales, the ability to confront China and Russia, and opposition to support for longstanding U.S. allies in sensitive regions, not least Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Third, and most significant, are beliefs and perceptions about America’s world role. This is evident in a fundamental assumption dating from the Obama era that the proper mix of incentives and agreements can reinforce Iran’s “moderates” and incentivize Tehran to become a good neighbor in the region. This is not only a failure to learn from the 41-year record of Iran’s radical behavior, deep seated revolutionary ambitious, extensive militia network, and pervasive support for terrorism, and domestic repression, but it also discounts the recent lament of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif that it is the Revolutionary Guards who determine foreign policy, not the foreign ministry.14A perceptual problem for American policymakers, and now quite evidently in the Biden administration, concerns the problem of agency. That is, by projecting their own assumptions and beliefs outward onto others, they assume that foreign leaders will respond to U.S. policies, actions and incentives as Americans would in their position. In making these assumptions, they deprive leaders such as Putin, Xi, and Khamenei of agency, that is they fail to comprehend how foreign decision-maker’ calculations are driven by their own histories, ideologies, personal experiences, and regime interests.15 It is thus not surprising that Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran fail to respond in the desired way to Washington’s overtures. H.R. McMaster makes a similar point, citing Hans Morgenthau’s concept of “strategic narcissism,” and his observation that, “Americans . . . tend to view the world only in relation to the United States and to assume that the future course of events depends primarily on U.S. decisions or plans, or on the acceptance by others of our way of thinking.”16In fairness, it remains early to draw any definitive conclusions about Biden foreign policy, nonetheless, with its early initiatives already well underway, a pattern seems to be emerging. This brings to mind an observation by Henry Kissinger who was asked early in the Nixon administration if it was going to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor. Kissinger’s wry response was, “We will not repeat their mistakes, we will make our own mistakes.” Now, nearly five months into his first term, we may wonder whether Biden is on course to do both.
Robert J. Lieber is Emeritus Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, and author of the forthcoming book, Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World.