The Islamic Republic of Iran keeps doubling down on its demands for unearned relief from US sanctions, but so far the Biden administration has responded appropriately by saying that Tehran must be the one to make the first move. It is vitally important that the administration remains firm in that position, lest it end up providing the mullahs with further incentive to threaten the international community and expand upon its various malign behaviors.
The latest Iranian statements suggest that the conflict over this issue may be drawn out for some time to come. But it can only last as long as the Iranian economy can avoid succumbing to the pressure that was ramped up by Biden’s predecessor. And regardless of how long that may be, the effects of that pressure include a substantial increase in leverage on the US side, which must not be given away without cause.
On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered remarks to military leaders which were carried by state media. After outlining the regime’s expectation of full and immediate relief from US sanctions, Khamenei said that only afterward would Iran return to full compliance with the restrictions on nuclear activity that were put into place by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “It is the irreversible and final decision and all Iranian officials have consensus over it,” he added.
President Joe Biden did not immediately respond to those remarks, but in a separate media interview on the same day, he reiterated that the US takes the opposite position: Iran must resume compliance with all the formal terms of the JCPOA, and only then will sanctions relief be phased back in.
Iran has been violating those terms since early 2019, at in January 2020 the regime announced that it would comply with none of them. This led to the deal’s European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – triggering a dispute resolution mechanism, but the European Union’s head of foreign policy soon expressed willingness to draw that process out indefinitely. Josep Borrell’s remarks reinforced perceptions of the US as standing alone in its hardline approach to Iran policy, and the longevity of that situation was promptly called into question by the American presidential election.
In the run-up to Biden’s election, then-President Donald Trump argued that that outcome would be a boon for Iran, given that Biden had expressed an interest in returning to the JCPOA as written. Before pulling out of the nuclear deal in 2018, Trump described it as one of the worst ever negotiated, on account of its arguably weak restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and its failure to address adjacent issues like the regime’s ballistic missile development and its regional imperialism.
To justify a strategy that he described as “maximum pressure,” Trump suggested that a faltering Iranian economy would force the Iranian regime to come back to the negotiating table and accept stricter limits on its nuclear activity as well as restrictions on other categories of malign behavior. The administration maintained its commitment to that strategy even after Trump’s electoral debate, putting new sanctions into place even in the few weeks immediately prior to Biden’s January 20 inauguration.
To date, Biden has not removed any of those sanctions. On some level, this can potentially be regarded as tacit acknowledgement of their value. Trump believed that Iran’s economy was on the verge of collapse prior to the election, and that Tehran was looking to a Biden presidency as a possible source of last-minute reprieve. It is not entirely clear whether the new administration’s shares the previous one’s assessment of how dire the situation is for Iran, but during his first three weeks in office, Biden has made it clear that he is in no rush to provide the expected lifeline.
This is as it should be, and it’s how things should remain for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether or not Iran’s economy is indeed teetering on the brink of collapse. While there may be some uncertainty on that matter, there is no doubt whatsoever about the provocative steps Iran has taken in its attempt to shift things back toward the status quo as it existed prior to Trump. These include the resumption of uranium enrichment to 20 percent fissile purity, the full resupply of nuclear stockpiles, and the start of work on uranium metal that would be a core component of a nuclear warhead.
But Iran’s provocations also extend beyond the nuclear sphere and include last month’s seizure of a South Korea-flagged vessel and threats against the lives of various dual nationals and falsely accused spies like the Iranian-Swedish medical researcher Ahmadreza Djalali. Some of these gestures are aimed at extracting concessions from the US specifically, while some are aimed at US allies, often in the interest of encouraging them to act as proxies for Tehran and to ramp up their own pressure in favor of American concessions.
The Biden administration must stand fast against both these forms of pressure, on the understanding that it is the right thing to do not only for US interests but also for those of other Western nations and for the Iranian people themselves. Giving into Iran’s demands would be foolish under almost any circumstances, and it would be especially foolish at a time when those demands are being issued ineffectually in response to a massive increase in American leverage.
By acquiring sanctions relief while sacrificing nothing on its end, the Iranian regime would come away from this situation believing that threats of nuclear weapons development and politically motivated execution are both successful strategies, which it can fall back on the next time it comes under international pressure.
Regardless of what one thinks about the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, there is no giving up on it now unless we want Iran’s provocations to grow worse and more frequent. The time may still come when that campaign can be ended safely, but it will only come after the Iranian regime has changed its behavior following the conclusion that tit-for-tat threats cannot work against the United States of America.