As the Biden administration enters its second month in power, its Iran policy remains at best ambiguous, but now should be the time for Biden to act, forcing change and building on the success of his predecessor.
Last week, the Biden administration launched air strikes on Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria who were involved in attacks on US personnel in Iraq. This response ran contrary to the popular belief that the Biden administration would turn a blind eye on Iranian aggression in hopes of resuming nuclear diplomacy – a stance part and parcel of the Obama administration’s approach to Tehran’s malign activity.
President Biden intended to send a clear message to the Iranian regime: “You can’t act with impunity – be careful.”
This is a welcome development, but doesn’t tie into the administration’s broader Iran policy. The appointment of Robert Malley – a proponent of blind realignment with Tehran – as special envoy to Iran, delisting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), and recent press briefings indicate a mixed willingness to deter Tehran and counter its malign regional influence.
This confrontation is the latest episode in an escalatory saga of action between Washington and Tehran. Politically isolated and economically suffocated, Iranian authorities continue to attempt to save face by consistently breaching the limits of uranium enrichment, amplifying havoc wreaked by its regional proxy network, publicly rejecting JCPOA renegotiation, and conducting a serial succession of lethal provocations on oil facilities and ships in the Persian Gulf.
If history is any guide, the Iranian regime will desperately attempt to test the Administration’s resolve a little more. How can we explain this pattern in light of Tehran’s sclerotic economy and rising internal discontent? Put simply, a chronic state of insecurity – one evident across ideological, economic and political dimensions.
Iran is a revisionist, anti-status-quo power which thrives on regional instability. Tehran’s regime and its ideological custodian, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are blinded by the moral imperative to export their revolution, as enshrined in Iran’s constitution and demonstrated by its militant regional proxy network. Resistance to the West in specific – and a rules-based global-order more broadly – is therefore a central tenet of regime legitimacy.
The regime’s endemic insecurity is also driven by domestic political pressure: Iran has a presidential election in less than four months, meaning that no Iranian official – especially hardliners – want to show weakness in the face of crippling sanctions and American resolve. In turn, hard-liners will point to any American concession as a sign that their ideologically driven resistance is working.
The tight link between regime survival and domestic legitimacy makes it more likely that the regime will choose to desperately escalate, particularly in the short-term. Biden would be wise to reaffirm its capability and willingness to respond to any malign activity emanating from Tehran.
Beyond ideological and political considerations, Iran’s chronic state of insecurity is driven by what it views as a military and defense asymmetry relative to its neighbors – a fickle claim quickly dismissed by its proven track record of fueling regional instability.
The Biden administration should leverage its position with Iran by demonstrating and reiterating that the US has unequivocal escalation dominance – be it politically, economically, or militarily.
The regional landscape in 2021 is fundamentally different from the landscape in 2015: Pummeled by sanctions and popular protests, Tehran is looking for a lifeline – the regime is in no shape to endure sustained pressure. Pressure is extending to the regime’s proxies: Iran’s failing economy forced Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to publicly call for donations.
Leveraging these conditions is imperative. President Biden is in an optimal position to use pressure enacted by his predecessor to negotiate a more comprehensive deal in consultation with regional allies – one that reflects the fact that Iran’s support for violent militant proxies in the region is inextricably tied to its nuclear weapons program. The bet that placing limits on the latter would induce positive changes in the former is a failed one. Both are intrinsically tied to Tehran’s ideological imperative to export its revolution.
It is imperative that a future deal with Iran is not premised on the same failed bet. Any future deal must include US regional allies while effectively addressing Iran’s destructive ballistic missile program and militant proxy network. The regime in Tehran knows that an escalation will imperil chances of an American return to the JCPOA. Deterring Iranian aggression and malign activity therefore hinges on establishing a clear zero-tolerance policy to Iranian provocations in pursuit of a stable region, free of Iran’s malign influence.
If the past is any guide, the path forward with Iran will be fraught and complex. We must be clear-eyed about the dismal realities animating Tehran’s socio-economic and political situation, and leverage those conditions accordingly. Failure to leverage American escalation dominance risks a loss of re-established deterrence, and, on a deeper level, risks falling into the fatal error of the Obama administration: Having a JCPOA policy instead of an Iran policy.