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US-Iran Relations after Trump: The Path to Peace Is Open

The attacks on 11 September 2001 not only shaped the focus of US foreign policy over the last two decades, but also defined how a generation of Americans understood the gravity of these policies by bringing the cost and tragedy of conflict home. For many young Americans, it was the first time they became aware of the extent of US interventionism and how it impacts the way other nations and peoples view the United States.

In contemporary American politics the idea of ending endless wars has become a ubiquitous catchphrase employed by both Republicans and Democrats.[1] Yet, despite this unifying cause, American leaders have continued to entrench the US in wars abroad. In 2003, millions of Americans joined the mass global protests against the invasion of Iraq to no avail. But 17 years later, the disastrous war and continued conflict in Iraq have validated the objections raised by those protests. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, with young soldiers being sent to a war that began before they were born.

It is within this context that we must understand the international efforts and the desire of the Obama administration to broker a peaceful deal with Iran that addressed concerns over their nuclear program and avoided another costly and destabilizing war in the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal—officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA—established not only a model for nuclear non-proliferation, but also a standard for global diplomacy by fostering cooperation between some of the toughest adversaries.

After decades of combative rhetoric on both sides, the United States and Iran sat at a negotiating table, engaged in dialogue, and shook hands to symbolically endorse a mutually advantageous agreement. But the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election dashed the hopes for peaceful relations, damaged America’s traditional diplomatic ties, and challenged the very world order the US played a leading role to create. Though President Trump was critical of the Iraq war and promoted the idea of ending America’s fruitless wars, the actions of his administration have at least twice brought the US to the brink of war with Iran,[2] most notably after the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani.

Instead of continuing on the path of diplomacy, Trump focused on how to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor. After abrogating the Iran deal in 2018, engaging in belligerent rhetoric, inundating Iran with crippling sanctions, and defying international protocols, it is the US that is isolated on the global stage.[3] But more critical than the rebuke of the international community is the result of the 2020 US elections.[4]

A new Biden administration will have to address the deep divides of the American populace, as well as the role of the United States in international affairs. There is every reason to believe that a Biden administration will return to the path of diplomacy in the case of Iran. The Iran deal was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the administration under which he served as vice president. Additionally, Biden has stated on numerous occasions that the decision to quit the deal was a “profound mistake,”[5] and rightfully predicted in 2017 that withdrawing from the deal would isolate the US rather than Iran.[6] After the assassination of Soleimani, Biden reiterated the disastrous nature of Trump’s Iran policy and emphasized that it was Trump, not the Iranians, who had upended diplomacy.[7]

None of this is to say that the road of return will not have its challenges, and the Trump administration has made it clear that they will continue their “flood” of sanctions[8] in order to sabotage Biden’s ability to return to the deal. However, with Biden the future of US-Iran relations may look like the hopeful days of the JCPOA negotiations.

Just as we did after 9/11, the US today stands at yet another turning point, further complicated with the added issue of an internal test of its democracy. Trump’s shameful attempt to undermine the very foundations of American democracy[9] is analogous to his administration’s efforts to sabotage global diplomacy. As the lone superpower of the world—a status that can be recognized given the inability of the international community to actually hold the US accountable for its transgressions—the US will certainly play a significant role in shaping this century.

US-Iran relations in the coming years will be defined by the success or failure of the JCPOA, the framework of which still exists and Iran has already signaled to President-elect Biden.[10] The choice for Biden now is a path toward peace and diplomacy or conflict and war. How he chooses to move forward with Iran may serve as a model for US leadership more broadly and the future of global collaboration. 

The United States can either choose to use its power to lead the world to a new stage of global cooperation and human relations that acknowledge and face existential threats like climate change and nuclear proliferation, or it can continue to flaunt that power and incite more conflict. Without an immediate change of policy vis-à-vis Iran, the prospect of another disastrous war looms large. But one thing is clear: the coming of a Biden administration brings renewed hope for diplomatic solutions and peace.


[1] James Carden, “A New Poll Shows the Public Is Overwhelmingly Opposed to Endless US Military Interventions,” The Nation, 9 January 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/new-poll-shows-public-overwhelmingly-opposed-to-endless-us-military-interventions/

[2] Peter Baker, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick, Julian E. Barnes, and Alissa J. Rubin, “Seven Days in January: How Trump Pushed U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War,” New York Times, 11 January 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/11/us/politics/iran-trump.html

[3] Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Colum Lynch, “U.S. Isolated at U.N. as Push to Ramp Up Pressure on Iran Fails,” Foreign Policy, 21 September 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/21/us-isolated-un-iran-snapback-sanctions-trump-pompeo/

[4] Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller, and Will Weissert, “Biden Defeats Trump for White House, says ‘Time to Heal,’” AP News, 7 November 2020, https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-wins-white-house-ap-fd58df73aa677acb74fce2a69adb71f9

[5] Biden, Joe (@JoeBiden), “Today’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is a profound mistake.” Twitter, 8 May 2018, 1:53 pm. https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/status/993957007337148417?s=20

[6] Biden, Joe (@JoeBiden), “Unilaterally putting the Iran deal at risk does not isolate Iran. It isolates us.” Twitter, 13 October 2017, 10:49 am. https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/status/918896418559053825?s=20

[7] Bill Barrow, “Watch: Biden Says Iran Escalation Shows Trump ‘Incapable of World Leadership,’” PBS News Hour, 7 January 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-live-joe-biden-to-deliver-foreign-policy-speech

[8] Barak Ravid, “Trump Administration Plans ‘flood’ of Sanctions on Iran by Jan. 20,” Axios, 8 November 2020, https://www.axios.com/trump-administration-iran-sanctions-january-3951f776-09c9-4e55-b0f5-4a9c80e9e974.html

[9] Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Twitter and Facebook Warning Labels Aren’t Enough to Save Democracy,” Washington Post, 9 November 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/09/facebook-twitter-election-misinformation-labels/

[10] Associated Press, “Iran’s President Calls on Biden to Return to Iran Nuclear Deal,” Los Angeles Times, 8 November 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-11-08/irans-president-calls-on-biden-to-return-to-nuclear-deal

CONTRIBUTOR
Assal Rad
Assal Rad

Assal Rad is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Iranian American Council based in Washington, DC. She received her PhD in history at the University of California, Irvine. Follow her on Twitter @assalrad.

This issue was published in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Turkey Office.
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