One of the first foreign policy issues on President Joe Biden’s desk will be Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2018, Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, undoing what many considered to be the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions policy and the assassinations of several key Iranian officials have further heightened tensions between the two countries. Iran is now violating the JCPOA’s restrictions on uranium enrichment, bringing it closer to the bomb than ever before.
Biden and his foreign policy advisers—many of whom played key roles in the initial Iran negotiations—have outlined their strategy: re-join the JCPOA (if Iran returns to compliance) and use it as a launchpad for talks on issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional activities. There are reasons to believe that some kind of initial rapprochement is possible in the coming months, but the politics around the Iran Deal suggest deeper problems.
The credibility of U.S. commitments beyond a single administration can no longer be assumed. And the ease with which Trump reversed hard-fought technical successes revealed the ephemerality of diplomacy without societal buy-in. To make sustainable progress with Iran, the administration needs to find new ways to shore up support at home.
At the most basic level, diplomacy is a claim to represent a state to the outside world. For diplomacy to succeed, all parties need to believe that their counterparts speak not for themselves, but for the state.
After the devastating fallout of military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya many policymakers and pundits have begun championing renewed investment in U.S. diplomacy. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to, ‘elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy.’ In a world in which threats are increasingly transnational, this approach makes sense. The problem—as the Trump administration revealed—is that U.S. foreign policy is not insulated from domestic politics.
Robert Putnam famously described international negotiations as a two-level game: any agreement must be acceptable to both an international and domestic audience. In practice, however, the disruptive potential of U.S. domestic politics on foreign policy has been underrated by scholars and policymakers alike. Although U.S. policymakers worried about Iranian politics, few seriously believed that the deal would fail in their own backyard, even when the extent of political opposition became apparent. When 47 Republican senators signed an open letter to Iran, stating that Obama spoke for himself, not the country, U.S. negotiators were taken aback, but they also seized the opportunity to bolster their negotiating position, citing public opinion as a constraint on further concessions. As the lead American negotiator Wendy Sherman put it: ‘I always expected that the greatest challenge to the deal’s success would be violations by Iran, not the political machinations of the President of the United States... I was wrong.’
This is an error few are likely to make again. Trump’s foreign policy raised serious questions about the ability of any U.S. administration to make long-term commitments. The unusually messy transition of power has only compounded these doubts. Still, it would be a mistake to attribute this breakdown to Trump alone. Although his antipathy for his predecessor is undeniable, Trump’s position on Iran was well within the Republican mainstream. And in fact, Republican scepticism of international commitments has been a consistent feature of 21st century U.S. foreign policy. George W. Bush rejected both the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute and unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the key achievements of Cold War arms control.
Trump’s relatively frictionless withdrawal from the JCPOA revealed the weakness of America’s political and institutional mechanisms for legitimating international agreements at home. Political polarization has taken formal treaty ratification—which requires 67 votes in the U.S. Senate—functionally off the table. Of course, administrations can still pursue executive agreements (as the Obama administration did with Iran), but if those agreements lack popular support, opponents can score easy points by rejecting them.
Unlike military interventions, whose materiality imposes certain continuities, diplomatic agreements must be upheld through discourse amid political transitions. Although the dynamics described here have implications for the likelihood of diplomatic progress on issues ranging from climate change to nuclear weapons, policies that break with status-quo inter-state relations are particularly vulnerable. As some IR theorists have pointed out, much of international relations is routinized. In the words of Ted Hopf, ‘We have created security and cooperation ‘dilemmas’ that are not dilemmas at all but straightforward habitual routines of enmity and amity.’
Unreflective enmities are a prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy, and perhaps no rival occupies more space in the American public imagination than Iran. Obama staked his foreign policy legacy on proving the tractability of seemingly intractable problems. But the administration underestimated the entrenched hostility toward Iran among the U.S. public and overestimated its ability to change the narrative through technical progress and presidential rhetoric alone.
At the most basic level, diplomacy is a claim to represent a state to the outside world. For diplomacy to succeed, all parties need to believe that their counterparts speak not for themselves, but for the state. Of course, the reality of U.S. power means that other states will engage when it benefits them, but a promise attributed to an administration does not carry the same weight as a promise attributed to a state. America’s loss of credibility will introduce new constraints in negotiations at the international level.
In practical terms, Iran and the United States face a number of challenges in the coming months. Domestic dissensus has weakened the U.S. position. Iran badly wants sanctions relief and is willing to come back to the table, but this does not mean that the U.S. has more leverage. Trump’s withdrawal alienated Europe, and China and Russia will not apply the kind of economic pressure that they did before. Iran is suffering, but it has shown that it can withstand pressure.
At home, Biden—like Obama—must contend with an unfavourable political environment, even within his own party (Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against the JCPOA in 2015). Meanwhile, the JCPOA’s ‘sunset clauses’ are getting closer. In short, at the international level, the Biden administration has less credibility and less leverage than the Obama administration, and it faces the same domestic hurdles.
None of this means that the Biden administration should throw in the towel. Vincent Pouliot argues that peace is not the absence of war but rather ‘self-evident diplomacy.’ Concrete progress on areas of mutual interest can normalize future cooperation. Negotiations that address issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program may also be easier to explain to a sceptical public. But it would be a mistake to pursue transformational change in U.S.-Iranian relations without a strategy that addresses the domestic obstacles to success.