Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. He is a contributing writer at the Atlantic, regularly advises senior U.S., European, and Asian officials, and has testified numerous times before the U.S. Congress. Sadjadpour is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, teaching a class on U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. Diwan interviewed him in the second week of November to get his perspective on how the Biden administration is likely to behave in the Middle East when it takes office, particularly with regard to Iran.
Michael Young: How do you anticipate that a Biden administration will deal with Iran?
Karim Sadjadpour: A Biden administration will be inheriting a pandemic and the economic crisis associated with it, so an obvious priority will be to try and deescalate foreign policy challenges such as Iran.
For many years there has been an ideological debate in the United States between those on the far right who advocate a policy of regime change in Iran and those on the far left who believe we can befriend the Islamic Republic if we’re nicer to its leaders.* As both a senator and a vice president, Biden’s view on Iran was always more realistic. He has no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime and the challenges it poses to U.S. interests, but he’s also been a consistent advocate of direct dialogue with Tehran.
MY: Is it conceivable that the United States will go back to the nuclear deal with Iran? Will Iran be willing to do so? Under what conditions?
KS: It’s certainly conceivable. I think there are, broadly speaking, three views among Democrats, including congressional Democrats. One camp believes a Biden administration should immediately return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal, assuming that Tehran goes back into compliance. A second camp believes that a Biden administration should utilize the leverage inherited from the Trump administration in order to strengthen the JCPOA by addressing expiring sunset clauses, Iran’s missile program, and its regional behavior. A third camp believes that a more modest approach—a mild reduction in U.S. sanctions in exchange for Iran’s freezing of its nuclear progress, also known as “freeze for freeze”—might be the most realistic one.
The discussion among these three different camps will obviously be affected by Iran’s disposition. If Tehran shows a willingness to return to the status quo ante, no questions asked, it would strengthen the argument of those in Washington who favor an immediate return to the JCPOA. But if Tehran insists on being compensated for the sanctions imposed on Iran during the Trump era, or if Iranian leaders attempt to expand their nuclear program or carry out regional provocations in an attempt to strengthen their bargaining position or signal that they are not weak, it will have the opposite effect.
Another factor that will impact Biden’s foreign policy is the makeup of the U.S. Senate. If Republicans continue to control the Senate—this will be determined in January when there will be run-off elections for two seats in Georgia—their hostility to the JCPOA, and to Iran more broadly, could constrain Biden’s potential outreach to Tehran. It is worth noting that two senior Democratic senators—Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez—opposed the JCPOA, so there’s not necessarily a consensus among congressional Democrats that it’s prudent to return to the JCPOA and offer Iran sanctions relief.
MY: In what ways do you think the Trump administration’s policies in the region will impose themselves on a Biden administration, or even perhaps strengthen its hand—whether on Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, or elsewhere?
KS: The Iraq war is an example of how it often takes years to assess the full impact of major U.S. policy choices. One of the Trump administration’s most consequential decisions was to assassinate Iranian major general Qassem Suleimani in January 2020. Up until now Suleimani’s absence has hampered Iran’s regional power networks, but Tehran’s continued desire to avenge his death could have consequences down the road.
The normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain offer Israel a formal presence in two countries that Iran has been subtly—and sometimes overtly—threatening for years. Iran has for decades used Dubai as its Hong Kong—its lifeline to the global financial system—and a hub for illicit trade and money laundering. If the Iranian regime—which is obsessed with Israel—believes there is now a Mossad presence carefully monitoring Tehran’s activities in the UAE, Bahrain, and elsewhere, it may elicit greater Iranian caution than before.
In Syria, on the other hand, the Trump era was essentially four lost years in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia entrenched and expanded their power, to the detriment of U.S. interests and allies, such as the Kurds. I don’t think anyone on the Biden team believes there is a U.S. policy that can quickly “resolve” the Syrian conflict. But I do think there will be a motivation to reassert U.S. interests and ease Syrian suffering and the refugee crisis.
MY: The Middle East is now being shaped by a plethora of regional and international actors. How do you think the U.S. will interact with some of these—notably Russia and the European countries—compared with Trump’s way of doing so?
KS: Trump didn’t believe the Middle East was a strategic priority for the United States—he called it the land of “death and sand.” He also held a favorable view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And for the last four years of Trump’s term Americans were so consumed by internal political crises that the humanitarian crises present in the Middle East were often neglected.
In contrast, a Biden administration is intent on restoring America’s global leadership and its relationship with U.S. allies and partners. It also understands that Middle Eastern power vacuums are not filled by Norway or Denmark, but by Russia, Iran, or Sunni militant groups that all adversely affect U.S. interests and security.
Aside from France’s unsuccessful attempt to broker a political consensus in Lebanon, European nations have not sought to play a meaningful role in the Middle East. I think a Biden administration would understand that any U.S. initiatives to ameliorate the region’s deadliest conflicts—in Yemen, Syria, and Libya—have a significantly greater chance of success with the active cooperation of European allies and regional partners. Hence, there will be a strong focus on U.S.-led, multilateral diplomacy.
That said, rehabilitating Washington’s alliances with European powers will likely be much easier than reassessing U.S. relationships with longtime regional partners such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even Israel. There is a strong disposition among progressive Democrats to downgrade these relationships, but it’s going to be difficult for the U.S. to simultaneously reduce its regional presence while also relying less, not more, on regional partners. Yemen is a good example of a conflict that will require active cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among others, to help resolve.
*This sentence was slightly modified due to an editing error.