While Trump’s experience with Iran proved that pressure alone does not work, Obama’s experience illustrated the challenges of engaging a regime whose primary interest, apart from staying in power, is opposing American influence. Given the perils of both action and inaction, Biden’s Iran strategy requires both the flexibility of a gymnast and the precision of a surgeon to cooperate with Iran when possible, confront Iran when necessary, and contain Iran with the help of partner nations.
Consider just one of the challenges: America’s eagerness to coax Tehran back into nuclear compliance, and our fear of jeopardizing the nuclear deal’s revival, might inhibit—whether consciously or unconsciously—our commitment to deter Iran’s regional provocations and domestic brutality, signaling to Iran and its proxies that it can continue to act with impunity. At the same time, our efforts to discourage Iranian provocations risk pulling us into regional proxy wars that we have no interest in fighting and that Iran can easily escalate.
Despite the urgent security challenges that Iran presents, a U.S. strategy that focuses only on the nuclear and regional ambitions of the Iranian government while overlooking the democratic ambitions of the Iranian people ignores the lessons of how the Cold War ended. Can the United States use pressure and diplomacy to effectively constrain not only Iran’s nuclear program and regional influence, but also its domestic authoritarianism? This is Biden’s challenge. He needs a strategic framework that sees Iran for what it is.