February 03, 2021

Sharper: Iran

Analysis from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

By Kaleigh Thomas, Chris Estep and Cole Stevens

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.

Reports

Reengaging Iran

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.

Middle East Security

Reengaging Iran

The international community may find Iran ready to consider a return to negotiations in 2021—regardless of the results in November....

Energy, Economics, & Security

Strengthening the Economic Arsenal

Foreword By David S. Cohen Sanctions occupy a strange place in U.S. national security. For many years, they were derided as mostly ineffective. The received wisdom was that sa...

Middle East Security

Countering Iran in the Gray Zone

American freedom of action to strike Iranian targets in the gray zone may be greater than previously assessed, if U.S. policymakers are willing and able to replicate at least ...

Special Event

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.

Middle East Security

Special Event: The Biden Administration and the Future of U.S.–Iran Relations

As the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign continues, the next 50 days will shape U.S.-Iran relations before the Biden team takes office. With tensions between ...

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Commentaries

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."

Middle East Security

On Iran, the Next Administration Must Break With the Past

The United States can address its discord with Iran and calibrate a smart and clear-eyed policy for the Middle East....

Energy, Economics, & Security

Add Economic Policy to Deterrence Planning

American defense leaders have adapted over the years to shifts in technology and conflict — for example, accepting space and cyber as principal warfighting domains and integra...

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."

Defense

Sending Troops Back to the Middle East Won’t Stop Iran

The Trump administration’s decision to kill Qassam Soleimani is the latest in an escalatory “maximum pressure” Iran strategy that is shifting American foreign policy attention...

Energy, Economics, & Security

Sanctions by the Numbers

This edition of Sanctions by the Numbers explores Iran sanctions, tracking how designations and delistings have evolved over time, the dozens of countries affected by Iran-rel...

Defense

Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East

The next NDS must detail a new approach to the Middle East....

In the News

Featuring commentary and analysis by Ilan Goldenberg, Kaleigh Thomas, and Richard Fontaine.

Middle East Security

Biden’s test: Rebuilding the Iran nuclear deal Trump tore apart

President-elect Joe Biden has made no secret that one of his earliest foreign policy objectives will be for the U.S. to rejoin the landmark Iran nuclear deal that the Trump ad...

Middle East Security

Biden faces mounting hurdles on path to rejoin Iran deal

President-elect Joe Biden is facing mounting hurdles to reenter the Iran nuclear deal as the Trump administration uses its final days in office to try to cement its so-called ...

Indo-Pacific Security

Pompeo, Who Led Trump’s Mission at State Dept., Leaves With a Dubious Legacy

Spurned by many foreign allies, ridiculed by adversaries, disliked by a significant number of his own diplomats and trying to preserve his political future, Secretary of State...

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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