The president probably won’t put his domestic agenda at risk by reconciling with Iran. That’s creating an opportunity for China.
Farewell, Iran nuclear deal! You strutted and fretted your hour upon the stage, and now are heard no more. The deal that was supposed to end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and perhaps produce a new security architecture for the Middle East, is dying. President Trump renounced the deal in 2018 and pulled the United States out. Joe Biden said during his campaign that he’d rejoin. He hasn’t, and it’s now clear that he won’t.
In Washington there is no constituency for reconciliation with Iran, no political will to make a deal, no sense of urgency — only visceral mistrust fueled by long-smoldering anger. And guess what? It’s the same in Tehran. Few powerful figures in either capital care much about the nuclear deal anymore. It had a remarkably short life span: signed with fanfare in 2015, weakened but not killed by Trump’s petulant withdrawal three years later, and now melting away. Hale and farewell, old friend. We hardly knew you.
This unexpected turn of events is a sobering example of the power that domestic politics holds over foreign policy. From a geopolitical perspective, the Iran nuclear deal was good for everyone. It placed Iran’s nuclear program under the tightest restrictions ever imposed on any nuclear program anywhere. In exchange, it offered Iran a lifting of sanctions and a path back into the world community. Who could oppose that?
Answer: the most powerful forces in Iran and the United States. Both see good reasons to reject diplomacy.
Inside the White House, the Iran calculation is easy to make. President Biden faces enormous and immediate challenges. He confronts a public health emergency, economic recession, and a violently polarized country. Beyond that, he has grand ambitions for everything from a $15 minimum wage to a massive rebuilding of America’s infrastructure. When measured against those imperatives, making peace with Iran pales into insignificance. In Washington there is no political payoff for diplomacy with Iran.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Extending a hand of friendship to Iran would outrage key members of Congress. Several Democrats, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, oppose reentry into the Iran nuclear deal. They will become obstreperous if Biden presses ahead. Some could retaliate by blocking other projects that are dear to his heart. So Biden might logically ask himself: Which is more important, my domestic agenda or outreach to Iran? Which will shape my legacy? The answer is clear. Biden’s priorities, and America’s, are at home. Reconciliation with Iran risks backlash from Capitol Hill. As Biden contemplates his thin margins in the House and Senate, risk is precisely what he wants to avoid.
The calculation in Tehran is almost as straightforward. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal — officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — proved Iranian hard-liners right. They had predicted the United States would renege on any deal, and that happened. Largely as a result, conservatives scored sweeping victories in last year’s parliamentary elections. One of their militantly anti-American leaders seems likely to win the presidency in June. In Tehran as in Washington, those who reject diplomacy are sitting in the catbird seat.
As for the possibility that Iran will fold under “maximum pressure” and agree to accept American conditions, forget it. Decades of sanctions have accustomed Iranians to hard times — and made them champions of sanctions-busting. Their lives have indeed become worse, but their economy has stabilized and is not approaching collapse. Iran’s emerging leaders have concluded that the United States will negotiate seriously only if Iran advances its nuclear program to the point where it is about to produce a bomb. They plan to spend the next several years getting there. Tehran believes time is on its side, and it is no more interested than Washington in a quick return to diplomacy.
As Iran reinvigorates its nuclear program, chest-thumpers in the United States and Israel will intensify warnings that “all options are on the table.” Neither, however, is likely to launch a war. Biden does not want the distraction of another Middle East conflict, and Israel cannot risk the retaliation bombing that Iran would surely unleash.
While the snarling continues, geopolitical alignments will shift. Dramatic evidence of that came last week when Iran signed a 25-year trade deal with China. It aims to increase trade between the countries tenfold over the next decade, to $600 billion annually. In exchange for major Chinese investment in its aging oil, transport, and defense systems, Iran will supply oil to China. For Iran, this is a lifeline that may greatly ease the pressure of American sanctions. For China, it is another step toward Eurasian power achieved by diplomacy and deal-making, not invasion, bombing, or occupation.
History has driven a deep wedge between Iran and the United States. Both countries have vibrant and highly educated societies. We also share long-term strategic interests, including calming Afghanistan and crushing extremist militias tied to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Yet we remain caught in a cycle of hostility.
As it became clear that both countries would have new presidents in 2021, there seemed hope for a break in that cycle. It was not to be. Rather than commence a diplomatic minuet, the two countries have chosen to continue their ghost dance. That means curtains for the nuclear deal — and no exit from the labyrinth of US-Iran hostility.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.