Donald Trump and Joe Biden have different thoughts on how to deal with Iran. Photo: Creative Commons/Photo: Gage Skidmore /Edited: Shabbir Lakha

Concerned his “maximum pressure strategy” will be undone by the incoming Joe Biden administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is imposing new sanctions on Iran while boasting that the Trump government’s punitive policies have been a success. 

On November 10, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on six Iranian companies and four individuals it accused of facilitating the procurement of sensitive goods for Iran Communication Industries, an Iranian military firm blacklisted by the US and EU.

On Wednesday, new sanctions were imposed against Iran’s Mostazafan Foundation and roughly 160 of its subsidiaries for reputedly contributing to human rights violations. The announcement said the foundation provides material support to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for “malign” activities including the suppression of dissent.

It’s the latest in a long list of sanctions imposed on Iran in a so far failed bid to press concessions from Teheran. Over the past two and a half years, Pompeo has hammered Iran with a broad list of a dozen demands for inclusion in a new nuclear treaty, a provocative call Iran’s government has declined to answer.

Those demands, including a call to stop the enrichment of uranium, far surpass the requirements of the previous Iran nuclear accord that Trump scrapped and other Western powers still support. 

By any measure and per Pompeo’s own admission, US pressure has wholly failed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, although sanctions have hurt the economy. Indeed, Tehran’s selective non-compliance with the agreement, in reaction to America’s unilateral withdrawal, has brought Iran that much closer to the threshold of “nuclearization.” 

In other words, despite Pompeo’s claims that coercive sanctions have been a “critical tool of national security,” in reality the measures have increased the risks of proliferation. It’s a strategic reality a Biden administration is expected to address through more conciliatory measures.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a relentless Iran hawk. Photo: AFP

But Pompeo’s move to build new speedbumps to prevent an Iran policy U-turn, reflected in Biden’s promise of returning to the nuclear deal (albeit with some caveats), follows the simple logic that the larger the number and scope of sanctions on Iran, the harder it will be to steer a course shift.   

Should Biden wish to bring the US back to the framework of the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and thus put the US back in compliance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, then he can use his presidential power and issue a number of executive orders that would reverse Trump’s sanctions on Iran.

According to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, there is nothing difficult or complicated about a US return to the JCPOA, contrary to the position adopted by some US negotiators such as diplomat and scholar Wendy Sherman.

This, he said, can be achieved easily by the US “coming back to the table” and joining the other signatories of the agreement that meet regularly within the context of the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism, known as the Joint Commission. 

Iran’s Spiritual Leader Khamenei, has left the door open to the US by stating that it was not Iran that left the table. Iran has complained, including to the UN’s International Court of Justice, or World Court, against the US and has won an interim ruling that advises the US against imposing new sanctions on Iran.

That high court advice, of course, has been completely ignored by the Trump administration, in line with its frequent disregard for international law and, in particular, international humanitarian laws.

The latter have been brazenly violated by a slew of new US sanctions imposed in the middle of the pandemic, thus making it exceedingly difficult for Iran to procure the necessary medical supplies it needs to deal with its Covid-19 outbreak.

An Iranian woman wearing a mask walks past a mural displaying Iran’s national flag in Tehran, March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Pompeo will no doubt be judged harshly by future historians as a callous diplomat who sought to achieve regime change in Iran by inflicting as much pain and hardship on the Iranian people as possible.  

The big question now is how far will Pompeo and Trump go in the next several weeks to entrench their Iranophobic legacy.  There are credible reports that Trump is contemplating parting salvo attacks on Iran. Reports suggest that Trump asked his advisors for options for a possible attack on Iran but backed away, at least for now, from pulling the trigger. 

Such an attack would likely involve the participation of Iran’s regional adversaries, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, thus raising the suspicion that the real purpose of Pompeo’s visit to the region may be to lay the groundwork for such a scenario.

That, in turn, could potentially be leveraged by Trump to appear as a “wartime president” and potentially give him emergency powers to remain in office despite decisively losing the November 3 presidential election to Biden, a result the incumbent has contested.   

Short of a full-scale war, the Trump administration will likely seek to escalate tensions with Iran in the weeks ahead. That speculation has been fueled by the 11th hour appointment of ardent anti-Iran hawks to top Pentagon positions, including new Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, ex-director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Biden and his foreign policy team will have the choice of acting incrementally, similar to how the Barack Obama administration separated nuclear and non-nuclear issues, or instead of adopting a “bundle approach” that would raise all outstanding issues simultaneously in pursuit of a holistic resolution. 

The latter approach, advised by a number of Iran experts, is, in fact, a likely road to nowhere because (a) it complicates the resolution of the key nuclear issue, and (b) requires the direct input of America’s regional allies, who are adamant about the need for the US to continue a policy of Iran isolation.  

A more reasonable approach, similar to the “differentiated detente” spearheaded by the Obama administration, is that it focuses on nuclear containment as a first and foremost priority, including by reinstating the US’ status as a JCPOA participant, and then use the good-will generated by both sides as a springboard for broader discussions. 

Then-US President Barack Obama standing with then-Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal was reached. Photo: Andrew Harnik /Pool/AFP

The problem with the “bundle approach” suggested by some pundits in the US and Europe is that it ignores the reality of mutual deterrence now firmly in place in Washington and Tehran, and backed by Russia and China.

It would necessarily need to be revisited and redesigned along the lines of a new, non-zero-sum approach cognizant of the various endemic sources of disagreement between the two countries, as well as the shared or coinciding interests such as the common concern of a return of ISIS terrorism. 

Much like America’s relations with China and Russia, detente and deterrence can work and diplomatic channels can be established irrespective of structural conflicts between the two sides, including US perceptions about Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The key is to regulate those conflicts and impose a sense of logic and predictability on them, instead of letting them swirly out of control as they did under the confrontational methods and rhetoric employed by the outgoing Pompeo and Trump.