from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: What to Do About Iran?

The Iranian flag being removed from a stage during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2015.
The Iranian flag being removed from a stage during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2015. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This week: how Donald Trump and Joe Biden say the United States should deal with Iran.

September 25, 2020

The Iranian flag being removed from a stage during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2015.
The Iranian flag being removed from a stage during the Iran nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2015. Carlos Barria/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday imposing new sanctions on Iran to block its development of nuclear and conventional weapons. Two days earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had triggered so-called snapback sanctions, which if true, means the “return of virtually all previously terminated U.N. sanctions.” That claim was quickly disputed not just by Iran, but also by Britain, France, and Germany. Even before Pompeo made his announcement, the three U.S. allies issued a statement saying that the U.S. move would have no legal effect because the United States had left the 2015 Iran deal. Pompeo in turn said that the Trump administration “is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences” on other countries that do not enforce the sanctions. 

Whether the Trump administration will actually seek to punish Britain, France, and Germany for opposing its Iran policy remains to be seen. Doing so would trigger a major row within the transatlantic alliance that could damage substantial U.S. strategic interests. What this week’s moves do highlight is that the Trump administration remains wedded to its “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. That policy has inflicted significant pain on the Iranian economy over the past two years, though the regime’s own missteps and COVID-19 have played a role as well.

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The problem is that wrecking the Iranian economy is just the means of U.S. policy. The goal is to get Iran to accept permanent limits on its nuclear and conventional military capabilities, as well as to curb its disruptive behavior in the Middle East. So far economic hardship hasn’t changed Iranian behavior and it may never do so. Pakistani President Ali Bhutto once vowed that his fellow countrymen and women will “eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own” nuclear weapons. And Pakistan eventually did. The Iranian regime may well feel the same way.

Joe Biden shares Trump’s commitment to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power and to frustrating its regional ambitions. He proposes to do that not through economic coercion but by returning to diplomacy. He has vowed that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Ironically, in this instance, a President Biden would be helped by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign—the prospect of sanctions relief would give Tehran an incentive to fully comply with the 2015 nuclear deal. Berlin, London, and Paris would surely applaud the return to diplomacy.

The challenge, of course, is getting follow-on negotiations to produce something of substance. Here skepticism is justified. Iran bargained hard back in 2015 for time-limited caps on its nuclear ambitions. It’s unclear why it would accept harsher terms in 2021, especially when Biden has tossed aside economic coercion as a policy and presumably likes the military option even less. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made precisely that point Monday at a CFR meeting. He declared that Iran is “absolutely not” open to renegotiating the terms of the nuclear deal. Zarif’s comment can, of course, be chalked up to standard diplomatic posturing. But it also may signal Iran’s true position.

The painful truth is that the Trump and Biden approaches to Iran may both be destined to fail. Policy debates often presume that all problems can be fixed. But in practice, many can’t be. They can only be managed. If that’s the case, then any clear-eyed assessment of U.S. policy options should turn less on what they purport to achieve and more on the costs they might entail.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Trump addressed the UN General Assembly virtually on Tuesday with a seven-minute prerecorded speech from the White House. He began his speech by praising his administration’s response to the “China virus.” He then pivoted to calling on the United Nations to “hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.” Not content to stop there, he lambasted China’s overall environmental record:

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In addition, every year, China dumps millions and millions of tons of plastic and trash into the oceans, overfishes other countries’ waters, destroys vast swaths of coral reef, and emits more toxic mercury into the atmosphere than any country anywhere in the world. China’s carbon emissions are nearly twice what the U.S. has, and it’s rising fast. By contrast, after I withdrew from the one-sided Paris Climate Accord, last year America reduced its carbon emissions by more than any country in the agreement.

Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America, and I will not stand for it.

Earlier this year Trump was praising China for its “efforts and transparency” in confronting the coronavirus.

During a speech remembering veterans of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion on Wednesday, Trump announced new sanctions on Cuba. They bar American citizens from buying Cuban cigars or rum and from staying at government-run hotels on the island. The president criticized his predecessor’s policy toward Cuba and laid down his criteria for what it will take to relax U.S. sanctions:

The Obama-Biden administration made a weak, pathetic, one-sided deal with the Castro dictatorship that betrayed the Cuban people and enriched the communist regime. I canceled the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime.

We will not lift sanctions until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free elections are scheduled.  They will have to go through a lot, but things are happening, and it’s very interesting to see the level at which they’re happening.

Cuban-Americans are a critical voting bloc in Florida, where polls show Trump to be in a neck-and-neck battle with Biden.

Biden tweeted his support for Juan Guaidó, who has long been contesting the legitimacy of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's hold on power:

Biden didn’t say anything in his tweet about what his administration would do to encourage Maduro to step down, though in the past he has said he favors “stronger multilateral sanctions.” By coincidence, a report by my colleague Paul Angelo was released yesterday urging the U.S. government to undertake serious planning for the possibility that Maduro may fall from power. In all, “U.S. policymakers would need to anticipate the fallout from a transition, even under the most auspicious conditions, and identify opportunities to ensure that the transitional context begets the restoration of democracy.”

What the U.S. Government Is Saying

The FBI warned this week that “foreign actors and cybercriminals” might use any delay in reporting the results of the election to sow chaos “by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy." The FBI noted that “the increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night.” 

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday that the agency had "not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."

The Senate Homeland Security Committee released a report that concluded that Hunter Biden’s position on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma was “problematic” for U.S. policy toward Ukraine. However, the Republican-led committee’s report failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden himself. 

What the Pundits Are Saying

Alex Ward wrote that the 2020 election is the first election in decades about which candidate “would most quickly end” America’s wars, with both Biden and Trump looking “to be the ‘peace candidate’ despite having track records that make it hard to claim such a title.”

Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in Foreign Affairs that “neither Trump nor Biden aims to demilitarize foreign policy.”

Nahal Toosi examined what might change in U.S. foreign policy if Biden wins in November and concluded that it “may not change all that much,” especially when it comes to a “tougher tone” toward allies and adversaries, tariffs on China, and new trade deals. 

Ryan Costello, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, argued that Biden should move quickly to rejoin the JCPOA if he wins, “lest he be forced to start new negotiations from scratch or be locked into a failing Trump approach.”

Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, argued that Biden shouldn’t seek to return NATO to a pre-Trump status quo but instead “pursue bold reforms” that would “shed existing security commitments like stability assistance and counter-terrorism missions” and restore NATO’s “core competency as a collective defense alliance.”

Brookings' Ryan Hass reviewed the Trump administration's efforts to constrain China and concluded that "the results of this policy experiment have not achieved their aspirations."

The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman explored how the challenges in validating and counting mail-in ballots could combine with “ambiguities in the Constitution” to create “a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result” from the presidential election come Inauguration Day.

Campaign Update

RealClearPolitics’ average of national political polls has Biden up by 6.7 points over Trump, 49.6 percent to 42.9 percent. Last week the spread was Biden by 5.9 points. FiveThirtyEight has Biden’s chances of winning at 77 percent based on current trends, the same as last week. 

Nearly 500 former national security officials, including twenty-two retired four-star military officers, released a letter endorsing Biden for president. The group, which calls itself National Security Leaders for Biden, said, “The current president has demonstrated he is not equal to the enormous responsibilities of his office; he cannot rise to meet challenges large or small.” Last week, 235 retired admirals and generals published an open letter supporting President Trump, claiming that “with the Democratic Party welcoming to socialists and Marxists, our historic way of life is at stake.”

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the moderator for next Tuesday night’s event, has announced the six topics for the first presidential debate. Neither foreign policy nor climate change made the cut. The Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election all did. Wallace reserved the right to change the mix of topics if events warrant. The debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET, and it will be hosted jointly at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic.

Judges continue to field legal challenges to how votes will be counted. Federal lawsuits against election officials in North Carolina and Wisconsin have led to the extension of deadlines in both states for mail-in ballots to be received. The deadline is now November 9 in Wisconsin and November 12 in North Carolina. Ballots in both instances still need to be postmarked by November 3. In recognition of the challenges created by COVID-19, a federal judge excused South Carolinians from the state’s requirement to have a witness sign their absentee ballot. A federal judge in Nevada dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign and state Republicans seeking to block a state law that automatically sends all registered voters in Nevada a mail-in ballot. The law also extended the mail-in ballot deadline to three days after Election Day and provided for prepaid envelopes. Expect all of these rulings to be challenged. Indeed, the Wisconsin ruling already has been.

Federal judges aren’t the only ones who have been busy. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that having a pre-existing condition that makes a voter more susceptible to COVID-19 is not a valid reason to request an absentee ballot. Mississippi is one of just five states—the others are Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas—that require voters to provide a qualified excuse other than coronavirus concerns to be allowed to cast an absentee ballot. The Maine Supreme Court rejected a Republican-led effort to block ranked-choice voting in the November election. Maine is the first state to allow voters to rank their choices for president.  

Ten more states have begun mailing absentee ballots, bringing the total number of states letting voters get a jump on Election Day to thirty. The Washington Post estimates that as many as 84 percent of American voters are eligible to cast votes by mail this fall. In 2016, nearly 24 percent of votes were cast using mail-in ballots. About 17 percent of the ballots came via early, in-person voting, which, if my math is right, means that about 59 percent of the 2016 vote came on Election Day. That number should be far lower this time around.

Axios teamed up with SurveyMonkey and Tableau to create an interactive that allows you to easily explore a rich array of public opinion data on the 2020 presidential election race.

Election Day is thirty-nine days away. 

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post

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