Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series analyzing the nuclear diplomacy challenges the incoming Biden administration will face. In Part 2, USIP’s Frank Aum and Ambassador Joseph Yun explain why Washington’s and Pyongyang’s domestic challenges may limit bilateral engagement. In Part 3, USIP's Donald Jensen examines the prospects for arms control with Russia amid competition on other issues. 

Of all the pressing issues in the volatile Middle East—wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, unstable Iraq, imploding Lebanon, and the 10,000 ISIS fighters and other al-Qaida franchises still on the loose—the most pressing for President-elect Joe Biden will be Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He has repeatedly promised to rejoin the nuclear deal, brokered by the world’s six major powers in 2015, which Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has a vested interest in reviving diplomacy but has limited time to engage the Biden administration with elections in Iran slated for June. (Brittainy Newman/The New York Times)
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has a vested interest in reviving diplomacy but has limited time to engage the Biden administration with elections in Iran slated for June. (Brittainy Newman/The New York Times)

But, the Biden administration won’t have much time—maybe six to eight weeks—to make initial progress. Iran shuts down for two weeks on March 20, for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and the presidential campaign starts when it opens up again in April. The election is on June 18. President Hassan Rouhani, who dared to run in 2013 on a platform of diplomacy with “the Great Satan” and limits on Iran’s nuclear program, will not be a candidate; Iran has a two-term limit. Rouhani has a vested interest in reviving diplomacy that could ease some sanctions and restore his legacy, but he has limited time to engage with the Biden administration before he is a lame duck.

The stakes are broader than Iran’s nuclear capability. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign—sweeping sanctions that have isolated Iran financially and targeted top politicians, the military and more than a dozen banks—have given leverage to hardline “principlists” and conservatives, who won the majority of seats in February 2020 parliamentary elections. They will use the economic costs and failure of diplomacy with the U.S. as a central plank in their platform to take back the presidency.

[A]fter a new Iranian president is inaugurated in August, the … most difficult step will be broader reengagement on all the other issues that the United States has long wanted to address, including Iran’s missile program, regional influence, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses.

Robin Wright

For Biden, it’s not just about rejoining the nuclear deal. As Trump ramped up sanctions, Iran engaged in a series of breaches of the nuclear deal that increased its production and stockpile of uranium enrichment, the fuel used for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. In an essay for CNN, in September, Biden proposed “compliance for compliance”—which would include Washington rejoining the deal and Tehran reducing its materiel. But who goes first? What sanctions should the United States lift and which should remain? How much does Iran undo? Ultimately both sides want leverage over the other.

The first challenge will be agreeing on the roadmap for diplomacy, quickly. The second step will be taking substantive steps to avoid diplomacy from becoming an election football that defines who wins Iran’s presidency. Down the road, after a new Iranian president is inaugurated in August, the third and most difficult step will be broader reengagement on all the other issues that the United States has long wanted to address, including Iran’s missile program, regional influence, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. Biden will be the eighth U.S. president since the 1979 revolution to try to defuse tensions with Iran. Four years may not be enough time to deal with four decades of flashpoints between Washington and Tehran.

Related Publications

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

How the Region is Reacting to the Taliban Takeover

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.;  Donald N. Jensen, Ph.D.;  Garrett Nada;  Tamanna Salikuddin;  Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.

While the Taliban’s swift advance into Kabul over the weekend has left much of the West reeling, Afghans themselves will bear the brunt of the militant group’s rule. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will feel the most immediate impact. Earlier this year, Russia, China and Pakistan affirmed that the future of Afghanistan should be decided through dialogue and political negotiations. How will they engage with the Taliban now?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

What You Need to Know About Iran’s Election and New President

What You Need to Know About Iran’s Election and New President

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

By: Garrett Nada

Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi won Iran's presidential election amid a historically low turnout on June 18. He will be inaugurated in early August and have significant influence over domestic policy and foreign affairs, although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the ultimate say. Raisi’s election comes as the Biden administration is working with other major powers to bring the United States and Iran into full compliance to the 2015 nuclear deal, which the president-elect has expressed interest in reviving to take advantage of its economic benefits. USIP’s Garrett Nada looks at the implications of Raisi’s election victory and what it could mean for the Islamic Republic’s ties to the outside world.  

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance

Iran Nuclear Talks Open a Window for Broader Middle East Security

Iran Nuclear Talks Open a Window for Broader Middle East Security

Thursday, April 29, 2021

By: Ambassador Hesham Youssef

Since the end of World War II, there have been several attempts that ultimately failed to establish a regional security framework in the Middle East. These attempts have historically fallen short, undermined by distrust, power politics and conflict. Today, a new window of opportunity may be emerging to establish a stable, broadly accepted mechanism for deescalating conflicts, setting norms and building confidence and cooperation between states in the region. World powers should consider the ongoing Vienna talks — aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration withdrew from — the first step in this direction. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionMediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun;  Sarhang Hamasaeed

The January 3, 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil marked an escalation in already simmering U.S.-Iran tensions. For Iraqi leaders, the Soleimani strike exacerbated an already challenging balancing act in maintaining Baghdad’s relationships with the United States and Iran, with whom it shares a long border and religious and social ties. During the past tumultuous year for Iraq, U.S. forces and Iranian-allied armed groups engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at how U.S.-Iran tensions played out last year in Iraq and the region and if the incoming U.S. administration, and its desire to reengage in nuclear talks with Iran, could help allay the impact on Iraq.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications