While President Biden has publicly committed to reengaging Iran, his administration faces immediate challenges. From navigating Tehran’s demands to concerns from regional partners and members of Congress, America's path back to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, is anything but straightforward. CNAS experts are sharpening the conversation about the future of U.S. policy toward Iran under the Biden administration. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore their ideas and recommendations.
In the course of seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran, the Biden administration will have to deal with a number of challenges, including: the technical complexities of Iran’s nuclear program; the ability to unwind and reimpose a complicated sanctions regime; the difficulties imposed by both Iranian and American domestic politics; and the interests and concerns of key international actors. To address these challenges, a CNAS report authored by Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers, and Kaleigh Thomas outlines a phased approach for engaging Iran in 2021 that takes into account economic, regional, and nuclear issues.
Strengthening the Economic Arsenal
Policymakers need a clear framework for how to use economic coercion that complements and works alongside existing frameworks for the use of military coercion. In a CNAS report, authors Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama outline ways to improve how the United States uses sanctions, including by making U.S. sanctions-removal assurances more credible, rethinking the role of sanctions in pressure targeting adversaries, and emphasizing the importance of information-sharing and transparency around sanctions for effective foreign policy.
Countering Iran in the Gray Zone
Successive American presidents have been unable to find effective strategies to counter Iran’s use of surrogates and proxies across the Middle East, often hesitating to respond at all for fear of starting a larger conflict. A CNAS report examines Israel’s mabam campaign against Iran and Iranian-backed groups in Syria and draws eight lessons that the United States can apply to future actions in gray zone conflicts, both against Iran and more broadly.
The Biden Administration and the Future of U.S.–Iran Relations
The Biden administration will enter office facing an array of decisions surrounding America's approach toward Iran, including on the future of the Iran nuclear deal and on Tehran’s regional activities. To discuss the future of U.S.–Iran relations in the Biden era, CNAS CEO Richard Fontaine hosted a conversation in December with experts Robert Malley, Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers, and Kaleigh Thomas.
On Iran, the Next Administration Must Break With the Past
"In order to relieve tensions, the next U.S. administration will need to engage Iran in renewed diplomacy," writes Elisa Catalano Ewers, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas in Foreign Affairs. "But successful diplomacy with Iran will not come easily. The United States will have to navigate its own and Iranian domestic politics. Israel and some of the Gulf states will greet such engagement with anxiety or outright opposition. Moreover, a legacy of deep distrust divides Washington and Tehran."
Add Economic Policy to Deterrence Planning
"From Russia and North Korea to Iran and Venezuela, U.S. presidents and lawmakers have long employed varying levels of economic pressure to alter the policies of foreign governments," writes Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama in Defense One. "Some of these tools – for instance, severing links between a country and the international financial system – can impose greater costs than some uses of military force. Yet policymakers have given too little thought to how different types of economic pressure intersect with different forms of military coercion."
Sending Troops Back to the Middle East Won’t Stop Iran
Chris Dougherty and Kaleigh Thomas argue in Defense One: "Adding conventional forces to the region will not alter the calculus of an adversary whose strategy is to provoke and exhaust the United States and our allies and partners while avoiding all-out conflict. Even when surrounded by 150,000 to 200,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2004 and 2011, Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons and kill Americans in Iraq with explosively formed penetrators."
Sanctions by the Numbers: Spotlight on Iran
This edition of Sanctions by the Numbers written by Abigail Eineman explores Iran sanctions, tracking how designations and delistings have evolved over time, the dozens of countries affected by Iran-related sanctions programs, and the top types of U.S. designations. The data add to the existing consensus that sanctions have an inverse relationship with Iran’s economic health, and designations have far outpaced delistings in the last three years as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas conclude in the Next Defense Strategy series, "A sustainable Middle East strategy that allows the United States to pull back militarily while focusing on realistic diplomacy and a smarter assistance strategy is a central building block for shifting resources to other priorities, for example effective competition with China."
In the News
Featuring commentary and analysis by Ilan Goldenberg, Kaleigh Thomas, and Richard Fontaine.
About the Sharper Series
The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.
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