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BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD ON IRAN - Shifting course to a better policy is more critical than ever

By Bahnam Ben Taleblu and Andrea Stricker - Foundation For Defense of Democracies

August 20, 2021

It’s always hard to admit when you’re wrong—this is true for the Biden administration’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan as well as its flawed approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Starting in April, Washington participated in six rounds of indirect negotiations to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to no avail.

The election of ultra-hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran means either that the clerical regime is focused on exploiting Washington’s propensity for appeasement, or that it is utterly disinterested in diplomacy and welcomes confrontation. “This process cannot go on indefinitely,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in July, a view apparently shared by America’s European allies. The secretary, at least on this point, is correct.

As Iran prods for more concessions and hard limits against its overreach, the Biden administration should signal that there are costs for continuing a path of intransigence and escalation. Doing so will require a renewed U.S. pressure track against Tehran: robust economic penalties backed by a credible military deterrent.

Shifting course to a better Iran policy is more critical than ever in the wake of Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, as Tehran and other adversaries will exploit the U.S. power vacuum. This will be bitter medicine for a president and administration that have routinely denigrated the Trump administration’s Iran sanctions campaign. On August 13, however, the administration employed enhanced U.S. counterterrorism powers to designate an oil smuggling scheme benefiting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign operations unit. According to the Treasury Department, the network helped Tehran sell oil illicitly, including to “buyers in East Asia”—mainly code for China.

As a one-off, such measures are too little, too late. Politically, however, they have the potential to serve as the birth pangs of a new pressure policy and replace Biden’s current “concede first” approach.

The administration has already made numerous direct and indirect concessions to Iran. These include dealing separately with Iran’s nuclear and regional threats, removing Yemeni rebels that Iran materially supports from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, delisting Iranian oil executives, failing to promptly respond to Iran-backed escalation in Iraq, not enforcing oil penalties as China imports record-high volumes of Iranian crude, not holding Iran accountable at the United Nations nuclear watchdog for safeguards infractions, and issuing waivers to permit Iran to pay debts to Japanese and South Korean companies using Tehran’s frozen funds. Iran has pocketed each and every concession without a hint of reciprocity or moderation.

This summer, the regime stepped up provocations, attempting to hijack a vessel in the Persian Gulf and attacking an Israeli-owned tanker with drones, which killed two Europeans. The U.S., U.K., and G7 issued statements, but have yet to deliver a promised “collective response” to the strike.

To stem such behavior and drive a better bargain, Washington must course-correct.

First, U.S. officials must disabuse themselves of the notion that they need to regain Iran’s “trust.” As former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord in 2017, “the deal is based on lack of trust, no part of this deal is built on confidence.” Mistrust of America and the West are