Biden Foreign Policy Team on Iran
Biden Foreign Policy Team on Iran
United States Institute of Peace
Original: November 24, 2020
Updated: January 4, 2021
Remarks at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum on June 17, 2020: “Iran would have to come back into full compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] and unless until it did, obviously, all sanctions would remain in place.
“And then, if we come back into compliance, we would use that as a platform with our partners and allies who would be on the same side with us again to negotiate a longer and stronger deal. President Trump’s actions have had the unfortunate result, among others, of isolating the United States, not Iran. We need to flip that.”
In an interview with Pod Save The World on Oct. 28, 2020: “First, you have to start not in the abstract but from where we are, and where we are is a really bad place. When President Trump walked away from the deal, he promised, as you said, a better deal, but of course it's not materialized. He also promised the so-called maximum pressure campaign he was exerting against Iran would make Iran act less provocatively; of course, the opposite has happened.
“So on the nuclear side of the equation, we have an Iran that is building back the very capability that the JCPOA stopped in its tracks, because the president effectively freed Iran from its commitments, and it now acknowledges enriching uranium at higher levels. It’s got a much larger stockpile. It's using more advanced centrifuges. The bottom line is the infamous breakout time--what time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for weapon--that we pushed back, through the JCPOA, to more than a year is, at least according to public reporting, down to about three months, and heading south from there.
“So we're right back to where we were before the deal with this terrible binary choice between, at least in my judgment, allowing Iran to get to a very very short breakout time or taking some kind of action that's likely to have huge unintended consequences. And at best, if it's military, maybe set back the program but not end it.
“And in fact, we're already seeing Iran--reports today suggest that Iran is now building back things deep underground that would be very hard to get at anyway when they've actually built it.
“And then on the other side of the equation, the maximum pressure. You know, we've seen the Trump administration swing wildly from allowing Iran to act with some impunity to obviously taking actions, including taking out Qassem Soleimani. And no one's shedding a tear for his demise. But it's one thing to take him out, and it's another to game out what would be the almost-certain consequences from that, including a significant increase in Iranian provocative actions--so much so now that in Iraq, where the administration said it was trying to restore deterrence, exactly the opposite has happened. We're being chased out of our own embassy. Secretary Pompeo is working to shut down our embassy because of increased attacks from Iranian supported militia in Iraq, and we see Iran acting in other places as well.
“So that's the picture that we have to deal with if Joe Biden is elected. What he said is “If Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations, we would, and we should, do the same things. And then we would use that as a basis to certainly lengthen the agreement, because a lot of time has passed, and some of the various timelines that were established in the agreement are now by definition much shorter. And we would look at ways to strengthen it too.
“But we'd be in a much different and better position, because instead of having alienated all of our partners who negotiated the agreement with us, and who are now spending all of their time and energy trying to keep it alive instead of working with us to engage Iran in an effective and meaningful way, we'd be back on side.
“And if Iran decides not to do it? Well, then I think the world would be able to address that together. And if Iran does engage in this, then at least we'd be back with the folks who helped us achieve the deal in the first place. That would also put us in a better position to effectively deal with other actions that Iran takes that we that we don't like. So, there'd be a lot of work to do on that, and it's one of the things that needs to be gamed out in detail, but there's no question that the place we're in now is the worst of all worlds, and it's a place we need to move away from.
Remarks at the Aspen National Security Forum on Aug. 5, 2020: Biden would “seek to build on the nuclear deal and to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance.”
“And then, we would be in a position to use our renewed commitment to diplomacy, to work with our allies, to strengthen and lengthen it, but also we’d be in a much better position to effectively push back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities, because we would once again, be united with our partners instead of isolated from them.”
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Jan. 8, 2020:
BLINKEN: “The fact of the matter is, the world was made a better and safer place by the Iran nuclear deal. It took a major challenge to world peace off the table. It cut off all of Iran's pathways to a bomb. It put in the most intrusive inspections regime in arms control history, and, by every account, Iran was abiding by the agreement.
“And our own intelligence agencies confirmed that. That was a very strong foundation upon which to build. And before the president got out of the agreement, he had an opportunity. He went to Europe, to the Europeans, and said, let's see if we can make this agreement even stronger, and I will stick with it, if you're also willing to join us in taking even greater action against the other things that Iran is doing that we don't like.
“And there was a conversation, a discussion that took place in that -- in that lane, in that -- and then the Europeans did make some commitments to take an even tougher line with Iran when it came, for example, to its missiles, or to its support for destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East.
“And the president still pulled the rug out from under them by getting out of a deal that they were a party to as well, that they negotiated, along with us, and that was working.
“So, if anything, this is ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ The Europeans are the ones who would be saying to President Trump, you're the one who needs to come back and see if we can revive what had been a very good deal for our interests, for our security, for our future.
AMANPOUR: “I don't know whether it's just sort of tough talk, but you heard Mohammad Marandi, the Iranian expert, saying, even if there was an attempt to get back to a deal, he's not sure you could even get back to one that, as he says, is as effective as the one that you already negotiated.”
BLINKEN: “When I was running through the strategic setback I think we're now facing as a result the actions of the administration has taken, another one of those setbacks is, at least for now -- and this could change -- that hard-liners have reconsolidated their position in Iran.
“They have managed to rally everyone around the flag, in the wake of the death of [General Qassem] Soleimani, when, just weeks ago, as you have noted, there were significant protests throughout the country that were violently repressed by the government, by the regime.
“So that's another setback too. There's a lot of message-sending going on. Again, I'm hopeful that what we have heard, both from President Trump this morning here in Washington, but also from the Iranians, at least from the foreign minister, suggests that, OK, both sides have sent strong messages. Let's cool it.
“But this is not the end. And I do think there's a strong prospect that, in the weeks and months ahead, Iranians will look for other ways to make trouble for us and to exact a cost for the removal of General Soleimani. They have other means of doing so, including through cyberattacks.”
U.N. Arms Embargo on Iran
In an interview with Michael Morell on Intelligence Matters, Sept. 25, 2020: “We managed to alienate virtually all of our key partners who wanted to stick with the [nuclear] deal. And they've now spent most of their energy and efforts trying to keep the deal alive instead of working with us to confront some of Iran's behavior, egregious behavior, in other parts of the world and in other areas.
“We've had the most recent chapter play out just in the last few days, the conventional arms embargo that expires in October. The United States launched an effort to extend it indefinitely at the United Nations. We got a grand total of one out of the 15 members of the Security Council to support us. Russia and China got to keep their vetoing try. It was a diplomatic debacle. Now we're invoking the sanctions snapback provisions in the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by President Obama and his administration. There's just one catch: those snapback provisions to put sanctions back can be invoked under the terms of the agreement by a participant to the agreement. And in pulling out of the Iran deal, the administration literally titled its press release, ‘Ending U.S. participation in the JCPOA.’”
”So our partners and allies are saying, 'Hey, you can't snap back the sanctions. You're no longer a participant in the agreement.’ So if Joe Biden is President, if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement, we would do the same. But then we would use that as a platform, working with our allies and partners to try to strengthen and lengthen it. And that also has the merits, I think, of putting us back on the same page with our allies and partners so that we can more effectively push back together against Iran's other destabilizing activities and make sure that when it comes to those activities, Iran is isolated, not the United States.”
Remarks at the Aspen National Security Forum on Aug. 5, 2020: “As best I know today, not a single ally is on board with an indefinite extension” of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran.
“The administration may complain about the sunset of the conventional arms embargo, but that embargo was negotiated and put in place by the Obama administration through the hard work of disciplined and competent diplomacy. And of course, we insisted in the JCPOA itself on powerful sanction snapback provisions. There’s only one catch: snapback needs to be invoked by a participant to the nuclear agreement. And in pulling out of the Iran deal, the administration literally headlined its press release, ‘ending U.S. participation in the JCPOA.’ So, they will make whatever arguments want to make, but legally it seems to be on pretty shaky ground in being able to use the very snapback provisions that we negotiated.
“There’s a lot of irony in what I’m hearing from the administration, blaming the Obama-Biden administration for the sunset of the conventional arms restrictions, because much of that was actually put in place by our administration in the first place. And we could have probably extended those prohibitions from inside the deal through a unified front with our allies.”
In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Jan. 3, 2021: “President- Elect Biden has said that if Iran comes back into compliance with its terms under the nuclear deal, that is to say it reduces its stockpile, it takes down some of its centrifuges and other measures so that its program is back in a box, then we would come back in. But that would become the basis for this follow-on negotiation.
“To your question directly about ballistic missiles, our view is that ballistic missiles and Iran's ballistic missile program has to be on the table as part of that follow-on negotiation. We also believe that there can be conversations that go beyond just the permanent five members of the Security Council, the P5+1.
“And then involve regional players as well. And that in that broader negotiation, we can ultimately secure limits on Iran's ballistic missile technology and that is what we intend to try to pursue through diplomacy that involves both the direct nuclear file and a broader set of regional issues.”
“We [the Obama administration] did believe that if you had the Iranian nuclear program in a box, you could then begin to chip away at some of these other issues. If you had the kind of clear-eyed diplomacy backed by deterrence, that it was the hallmark of what produced the Iran nuclear deal in the first place.
“Now, obviously, that did not come to pass, but it was never fundamentally part of the Iran nuclear deal that we had the expectation that it would. And as we go forward, we will continue to look at each of the significant issues we face with Iran, each of the threats and challenges that Iran poses in its own distinct way without presuming that by doing a deal on one aspect we are necessarily going to make progress on another.”
In remarks to The Wall Street Journal CEO Summit on Dec. 7, 2020:
Question: “How realistic is a return [to the nuclear deal] or have things just moved too far beyond that point?”
Sullivan: “You're right to point out we're in a dangerous situation. Since the United States left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapon. They have enriched more uranium. They have built a greater stockpile. They have moved their program forward in dangerous ways.
“What we are hoping to do after January 20th is to get Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal, which would put its program back in a box and put time back on the clock. If Iran is prepared to do that, then we're prepared to come back into compliance with our terms under the Iran nuclear deal. We think that is feasible and achievable, and that would set the stage for a follow-on negotiation that would allow us to work through issues related to duration and other aspects of Iran's activities and behavior and in the region, so that we would be on a long-term trajectory to deal with the challenge.”
Question: “But are they really incentivized to do that? When you hear the Iranians talk about the United States, they feel from their perspective that we changed the rules on them. They've got an election coming up next year where hardliners are saying that the current government there was taken advantage of by the U.S. Is that a realistic scenario that they would come back?”
Sullivan: “In the current circumstance where we just walked away, we're alone. We can't get the rest of the world powers to work with us to deal with the challenge Iran poses.
“To come to your question, this is really up to Iran. If Iran decides they're not going to come back into compliance in return for the U.S. coming back into compliance, then we have an opportunity to go to the rest of the world and say: you've got to join us now in showing the Iranians that there is no other choice but to deal with the [nuclear] program through this diplomatic option.
“We believe this is a viable strategy, a far more viable strategy than the one that has been undertaken, that has led to the point where Iran is much further down the track towards a nuclear weapon.”
In remarks during an event hosted by the University of Minnesota on Nov. 25, 2020:
Question: "Mr. Sullivan, you were a critical driver of America's negotiations with Iran that produced an agreement that has obviously fallen apart during the current administration. What are your thoughts about the future of the Iran, U.S. or Iran-multi-party agreement? Can that be rebuilt? Do you have a lot of uncertainty about that capability or how are you thinking about it?"
Sullivan: "Iran is prepared to return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, what's called the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, then the United States is prepared to return to compliance with its obligations under the Iran nuclear deal and then would work intensively on follow-on agreements to address a range of different issues related to Iran's nuclear program, including timelines and including other questions that were not within the remit of the original JCPOA."
Question: So in terms of Iran's intense concern about the relaxation of economic sanctions that really hit the Iranian people very hard, is that something that would be part of the negotiations?
Sullivan: So that's really up to Iran. What President-elect Biden has said is that he's prepared to return to compliance -- and sanctions are a piece of that -- if Iran returns to compliance for its obligations that it's been violating and is prepared to advance good faith negotiations on these follow-on agreements.
Question: "One of the criticisms is that Iran, outside the nuclear framework, was engaged in hostile acts, whether it was sponsoring terrorism or other acts. Do you see bringing those other kinds of non-nuclear but aggressive tactics by Iran, bringing that into the negotiations?"
Sullivan: "First, those regional issues impact a range of regional partners and countries that are not at the table in the nuclear negotiations, which is really the set of world powers, plus Iran.
"So the United States will stand behind and support diplomacy and diplomatic efforts and play our own role in them to deal with a number of these regional questions and to push back on Iran's destabilizing and aggressive behavior across the region -- its sponsorship of terrorism, its support for proxy militias and the like -- and do all of that in the context of a coherent Iran strategy that has a nuclear dimension, a regional dimension, a human rights dimension and covers the waterfront.
"But on the precise question of dealing with some of these regional issues, it is going to be incumbent upon us to make sure that all of the countries who are impacted by those regional questions have a voice and a capacity to participate in the policy and diplomacy that that would go into trying to resolve."
Tweet on Dec. 13, 2020:
Op-ed with William J. Burns in The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2019: “To start, both sides need to reset their expectations, and begin a step-by-step de-escalation that could create the basis for a longer-term resolution. The United States won’t get Iran to the table without some economic relief — either directly or through the European Union, as President Emmanuel Macron of France has suggested. The United States will also need to abandon as a precondition for progress the 12 demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out publicly last year. This hard-bitten and resourceful Iranian regime is not going to issue that kind of declaration of surrender.
“The Iranians will have to get more realistic, too. It is simply impractical to think that the United States will provide significant sanctions relief without assurances that Iran will immediately begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement that at least extends the timelines of the deal and addresses issues of verification and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently signaled some openness to negotiation of additional terms. While we should have no illusions about how difficult that would be, we should certainly test the proposition. The Iranians have known since the secret talks that we saw this as an iterative process, like other arms control processes, in which one agreement became a foundation stone for further negotiations. The nuclear deal agreed to in 2015 was meant to be the beginning, not the end, of diplomacy with Iran.
“Both sides should also seek to reduce tensions more broadly. It is long past time to secure the release of Americans detained, deeply unfairly, in Iran. It is time to stop threats to vital shipping lanes, and stop making Iraq a battleground for American-Iranian competition. We should make an opportunity of the crisis in the gulf and push hard to end the war in Yemen. That conflict is not only a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportion but also a strategic calamity for our gulf partners and a stain on American foreign policy. Afghanistan is another issue to discuss directly, given Iran’s stake in stability there, and Tehran’s ability to disrupt it.”
Remarks at the Hudson Institute, May 11, 2020: “We’ve learned that actually, both sides of this debate were wrong about a critical thing. So, advocates and defenders of the JCPOA, myself included, thought when the Trump Administration pulled out and imposed unilateral sanctions, that those sanctions were not likely to be as effective, because the Trump Administration wasn’t bringing the rest of the world along with them.
“That didn’t turn out to be true. Actually, those sanctions have been very effective in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain in Iran. Now, they have not been effective in actually producing the magical outcome that the Trump Administration is looking for. But they weren’t able to muster an enormous amount of economic pressure, more than I and those of us who were defenders of the JCPOA, would have anticipated.
“Opponents of the JCPOA were also wrong about a very important thing, which is they said when we did the deal, ‘Now that you’ve given all the sanctions relief, Iran is going to grow economically powerful and resilient, and you won’t be able to snap back. This notion of snapping back if Iran violates the agreement is a fallacy. And once you give them all the relief, you shower them with money, they’ll be so rich that when they start cheating in a couple of years, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do to stop them.’
“Well, they were proven wrong about that, because snapback turned out to be a fairly straightforward thing, the power of the U.S. dollar. And the U.S. financial system was sufficient to take Iran from 2.5 million barrels a day of oil down to 500,000 or wherever we are at this point. So, what does that tell us? It tells us that actually the basic logic of a nuclear deal that says, ‘You’ll get sanctions relief if you continue to comply with strict limitations on your program. But if you violate those limitations, we will snap sanctions back.’”
“So, I actually think it has vindicated the basic principle behind the JCPOA. Now, my view would be that a Democratic Administration should immediately reengage nuclear diplomacy with Iran and look to establish something along the lines of the JCPOA, but immediately begin the process of negotiating a follow-on agreement. And I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with negotiating a follow-on agreement and believing the JCPOA was good on its own terms.
“SALT I was followed by SALT II. The START treaty was followed by New START. And any arms control agreement is going to have to be a series of steps. And that follow-on agreement, in my view, should deal with the timelines for the restrictions and extend them, and should also try to address other elements that we have learned subsequently could be strengthened. And I think that that is a perfectly plausible available strategy and a far, wiser course than basically demand Iran to come out with its hands up.
“And when it doesn’t, just keep ratcheting up pressure until you get to the brink of war, which has been the current strategy. It has left us in a position where Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than they were when Trump pulled out. And we are closer to war with Iran today than we were when Trump pulled out. So, for me, that would be a sensible hard-headed approach to take place.”
“I acknowledge that the Iran deal did not cover Iran’s regional behavior and that Iran’s regional behavior continued to be bad after the JCPOA was struck in the summer of 2015. I noticed that. The Iran deal didn’t say one thing one way or the other. It neither constrained Iranian behavior nor constrained America’s capacity to push back against Iranian bad behavior.
“And the notion that somehow the JCPOA was the cause of Iran acting badly in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain, and other places, to me, is belied by the fact that the very people lobbying this critique were talking about Iranian malign activities in all of those countries before there was a JCPOA. You see, to me, the real issue with Iran, the real limitation on Iran in the region, has not been the availability of cash. It’s been the availability of opportunity.
“And where opportunities have arisen, they’ve taken them. And that was true in the ’80s. It was true in the ’90s. It was true in the 2000s. It was during the 2010s. It remains true today. And even under massive sanction, the Iranians have gotten more aggressive in the Gulf, have remained just as aggressive in Syria and Lebanon, have increased their activities in respect to the Houthis in Yemen, and all of that while under massive economic sanction from the United States.
“So, the idea that somehow it was the JCPOA that unleashed upon the region, to me, is deeply ahistorical. That’s one important part. The second important part is that I actually can’t conceive of how the US and Iran arrived at a regional bargain through the P5+1 process, which does not involve, by the way, any of the regional actors.
“So, would it be the U.S. and Iran sitting across the table, and the U.S. saying, ‘Iran, here’s an appropriate level of influence for you in Iraq or in Syria. We’ll come to some understanding?’ No, that doesn’t make sense. Or alternatively, is it the Pompeo theory of, ‘We’ll do a nuclear deal with you as soon as you completely withdraw all of your support for Hezbollah, all of your support from Syria, all of your support from everywhere else in the region. Then, we’ll do a nuclear deal with you,’ which ain’t going to happen.
“So, my view is, if you can take one of the big threats off the board, the Iranian nuclear program, take it off the board, and then use the tools available at your disposal, none of which were stripped from us by the JCPOA, to go after Iran in the region. And to the extent you want to make diplomacy, the central feature of stopping Iran’s malign activities, get the regional actors at the table with the Iranians and stand behind them with some pressure to try to produce a de-escalation, say between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“And I believe that the next administration should be thinking very seriously about how to run these two tracks in parallel, a nuclear track and a regional track. But the regional track is not going to be the P5+1 sitting with the Iranians and carving up the Middle East.”
Remarks at the Center for a New American Security, Aug. 5, 2020: “I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with finding a path forward on nuclear diplomacy early next year” which “then sets the stage for a negotiation over a follow-on agreement.”
“We should not hold hostage nuclear diplomacy for the sake of regional diplomacy, but we should think about ways in which there are linkages that can push both of them forward.”
“When we first got engaged in this, our friends in the Gulf repeatedly said, ‘do not make the regional issue a central negotiating point…because if we’re not at the table, we’re on the table.’ The regional track has to be led by the regional actors.”
Op-ed with Daniel Benaim in Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2020: “In pushing for regional diplomacy, Washington would have to ask and answer two difficult questions about how its priorities and hoped-for outcomes fit together. The first is how closely—if it all—to tie a new regional initiative to a nuclear agreement with Iran. It is a recipe for failure to hold the opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear enrichment hostage to maximalist regional demands—as when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for getting ‘every last Iranian boot’ out of Syria. But there may also be a way to thread the needle, through a phased approach that delivers nuclear progress up front and creates space to address regional challenges over time. Under such an approach, the United States would immediately reestablish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been fraying since the Trump administration abandoned it in 2018. The United States would then work with the P5+1 and Iran to negotiate a follow-on agreement. In parallel, the United States and its partners would support a regional track.
“To be clear, verifiably halting Iran’s nuclear progress—in service of a vital U.S. interest—should not be made conditional on the success of a regional dialogue. But a loosely connected approach could create an incentive structure in which the pace and extent of sanctions relief are connected to both tracks.
“The second difficult question is how best to square diplomatic ambition with the desire to lessen the U.S. military footprint. Here, too, Washington will have to thread a needle. It should not condition its military redeployments on the outcomes of exploratory regional negotiations. But it could, for example, privately insist on serious, good-faith Saudi diplomatic efforts to end the Yemen war and de-escalate with Iran as part of the terms under which it maintains a complement of U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia since May 2019.
“Ultimately, finding a more constructive approach with Iran is essential to the sustainable redeployment of U.S. forces from the region. Deterring Iran and preparing for contingencies arising from Iranian threats (to start a regional arms race, disrupt oil shipments, and support dangerous proxies) have helped drive the United States’ heavily militarized presence in the region over the past decade.”
“A new administration should aim to test the opposite premise: whether by restoring nuclear diplomacy, lowering regional tensions, and forging new arrangements, it can manage the Iranian challenge with fewer forces in the region. Trump has shown that military deployments cannot substitute for diplomacy. Even with a lighter footprint, the next administration would retain a credible military deterrent as a necessary backstop to diplomacy while minimizing the odds it would be needed.”
General Lloyd Austin (ret.)
Congressional hearing on March 8, 2016: “There are a number of things that lead me to personally believe that, you know, their behavior is not — they haven't changed any course yet.”
“What I would say is that what we and the people in the region are concerned about is that they already have overmatch with the numbers of ballistic missiles. And certainly the activity of their Quds forces ... we see malign activity, not only throughout the region, but around the globe as well.”
“We've not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path. The fact remains that Iran today is a significant destabilizing force in the region.”
“Some of the behavior that we've seen from Iran of late is certainly not the behavior that you would expect to see from a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a respected member of the international community.”
“While we're hopeful that the implementation of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and the results of the recent elections will lead to more responsible behavior by the Iranians, we've not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path.”
Congressional hearing on March 3, 2015: “We also dealt with Iran, which continues to act as a belligerent force in the region, primarily through its Quds forces and through support to proxy actors, such as Lebanese Hezbollah. And while we are hopeful that an acceptable agreement will be reached with Iran with respect to its nuclear program, either way, whether we reach an agreement or we don’t reach an agreement, Iran will continue to present a challenge for us going forward.
“I think the people – the leaders in the region certainly believe that Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon is a threat to the region. But they are also equally concerned about Iran’s ability to mine the Straits, Iran’s cyber capabilities, Iran’s ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability or ballistic missile capability, as well as the activity of their Qods forces, which is unhelpful. And so whether we get a deal or don’t get a deal, I think they will still share those concerns.”