What Will The Biden Era Hold For U.S. — Iran Relations?

As January 2021 comes to a close, the events of January 2020 cannot help but seem as though they happened a decade ago, rather than twelve months. At that time, the impending COVID-19 pandemic was merely bubbling on the horizon, with the full blown panic it would inspire across the globe imminent, but not yet fully realized. The most serious news story of that month was the escalation in hostilities between the United States and Iran to a nearly unprecedented level.

This escalation was, of course, kicked off by the assasination of Maj. General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards. Soleimani was killed in Baghdad on January 3rd of last year, in a targeted drone strike ordered by the United States and then-President Donald Trump’s administration. The event has since proved to be an opening of Pandora’s box in U.S. Iranian affairs that even a new U.S. Presidential administration will find difficult, if not impossible, to close again.

The reaction in Iran to Soleimani’s assasination was immediate and monumental in its scale and import. In cities across the Islamic Republic, mourners turned out en masse, with at least 1 million taking to the streets in Tehran alone according to the AP, if not more according to Iranian sources. The killing drew worldwide criticism and condemnation, including in much of the Middle East, although then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to claim that Iraqis were “dancing in the streets” at the news of Soleimani’s death.

Pompeo’s claims were exaggerrated and misleading, with many Iraqis in fact taking to the streets of Baghdad themselves in mourning, and the Iraqi government led by then-Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi condemning the killing as an act of aggression on its own soil. Praise for Trump’s action did come from some quarters of the Middle East, however- including, ironically, the nominally anti-American Islamic State praising the killing as “an act of Allah.”

This may be superficially surprising to some considering that the Trump administration’s Middle East policy also saw the ramping up of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, most notably providing heavy air support for the anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Forces’ campaign to liberate the Islamic State’s capital city of Raqqa in 2017. That battle was a significant setback for the Islamic State (which just three years earlier had seemed to threaten the Iraqi capital of Baghdad), although the group continues to persist in activity even since then.

However, what many do not appreciate about the Sunni Wahhabist ideology of ISIS is that it arguably sees the “apostate” Shi’a Islam of Iran as its primary enemy, even more so than the United States or Israel, which conventional wisdom thinks to be the main targets for Islamic terror groups. During the civil war, Israel has in fact supplied weapons to anti-Iran Syrian rebel groups, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, in a case of the enemy of their enemy ostensibly becoming their friend.

ISIS’ praise for the Trump administration’s killing of Soleimani then clearly stands out as an example of this type of mentality, where the presence of Iran unites seemingly diametrically opposed regional actors. Interestingly, the Israeli government stayed mostly silent in public after Soleimani’s death, perhaps hoping to deflect most of the (non-ISIS) Islamic world’s ire over the killing onto the United States, rather than itself.

In the United States, a number of leaders of the Democratic Party expressed reservations about the Soleimani assasination, mostly on tactical grounds rather than necessarily disagreeing with the principle of extrajudicial killing itself. In his statement at the time, Joe Biden called it “a haphazard decision process” made with “reckless disregard for the consequences that would follow.” While that strictly speaking may have been true, that fact becoming apparent would quickly be obscured by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the more underreported aspects of the pandemic, at least in the United States, was its effect on the Islamic Republic of Iran. That country was one of the first where the virus spread significantly, after, of course, the People’s Republic of China. As of 2021, the country had registered over a million cases, and 57,889 total deaths according to the official statistics, although some doctors and even government health officials within Iran itself made claims that the actual death toll was even higher.

Whether that assertion was true or not, there could be no question that Iran was suffering, with President Hassan Rouhani calling the toll of the virus “unacceptable.” Things were made worse by the fact that Iran was already subject to U.S. sanctions, which were increased by the Trump administration. These sanctions made it difficult for Iran to import foreign medical equipment needed to help them deal with the impact of the pandemic.

In addition to equipment, the sanctions necessitated that Iran would have to make unconventional arrangements in order to obtain vaccines for the virus as they became available, by means that would circumvent the grip of sanctions. One such avenue was found via Russia, as Iran approved a deal by which it would both import and produce that country’s Sputnik-V vaccine.

Even more unconventional than that would be the deal struck with the small island nation of Cuba. The nominally atheist Communist state and the Islamic Republic, thousands of miles apart from each other, are united by the pariah treatment both have long received from the United States, with Cuba famously having been embargoed ever since Fidel Castro came into power in 1959.

Although the effects of the embargo have kept Cuba a poor country, one thing the country has been able to accomplish is developing a famously world-class health care system. This makes it an ideal partner for Iran’s unprecedented medical needs of 2020. Thus, it might ultimately be unsurprising that Cuba has been able to successfully launch trials for multiple versions of its own COVID-19 vaccines. In early January of 2021, Cuba announced that it had an agreement with the Islamic Republic to transfer the technology needed for manufacture of its vaccine variants.

Iran’s struggle to cope with the pandemic has overshadowed the strictly political ramifications resulting from the killing of Soleimani, but those will be no less impactful on the country and the Middle East as a whole in the long run. Most significantly, the Soleimani killing accelerated a political trend that had already been set in motion years before in Iran, which is the eclipse of the reformist, pro-Western wing of the country’s political divide.

Even since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian politics has been more complex and multifacted than simplified Western narratives often portray. The revolution itself was not a political monolith, it began as an uneasy alliance between Shi’a Islamists, communists, nationalists, liberals and others, all united merely by their opposition to the rule of the Shah.

Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the country’s supreme leader only after cracking down on or marginalizing these alternate currents of the revolution in a series of purges. He also had to marginalize other major religious figures within the Shi’a Islamic elements of the revolution itself in order to establish himself as the Supreme leader.

Within the Iranian political system, the position of President is ultimately secondary to the Supreme Leader (held since Khomeini’s death in 1989 by Ali Khamenei), but one that still holds a considerable amount of authority, in particular with regards to day to day governance (whereas the Supreme Leader deals more with broader questions of ideology and sustenance of the Islamic Revolution itself).

1989 not only marked a transition point in the history of the Islamic Republic due to Khomeini’s death, but also because it inaugurated a period of relative moderates, from the “reformist” political camp- first Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then Mohammad Khatami. Under Khatami’s administration in particular, reconciliation with the West seemed like a legitimate possibility, especially in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, with Khatami vociferously condemning Al Qaeda’s terrorist action on the U.S.

Not only that, but Iran actively collaborated with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan with the goal of eliminating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. A new dawn in U.S. Iranian relations seemed imminent, but it was to be quickly cut short. When then-President George W. Bush included Iran in his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech alongside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, it ended any hopes of a rapprochement practically overnight.

Khatami’s policy of engagement and opening up to the West was discredited by the speech and Bush’s subsequent invasion of Iraq, which Iran vocally opposed despite the history of enmity and war between Saddam Hussein and the Islamic Republic. In the 2005 Iranian presidential election, Rafsanjani ran as the representative of the reformist camp against the young mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, representing the more conservative, or “principalist” camp of Iranian politics. The result reflected the change in Iran’s national mood, with Ahmadinejad winning with a resounding 62 percent of the vote to Rafsanjani’s 36.

Relations with the United States would reach a new nadir under Ahmadinejad’s administration, as he would fill the void left by Saddam Hussein as Bush America’s public enemy no.1. Ahmadinejad did his part to play that role with his provocative statements on the subject of the United States, Israel (although some of these turned out to have been slightly distorted), and other topics. It was not widely known at the time, but during this period the U.S. and Iran came very close to outright hostilities- in his memoirs, Bush admitted that he strongly considered ordering airstrikes on Iran near the end of his second term. In what can only be deemed fortunate for all parties involved, such an attack ultimately did not come to pass, and Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House presaged a thaw in relations with Iran.

This thaw was not immediate in arriving, however. A few months into Obama’s first term, Iran was the subject of popular international outrage for what took place in the aftermath of its own presidential election in 2009. In that election, Ahmadinejad ran for reelection against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who had served as a senior advisor to Khatami’s administration. Ahmadinejad won with 63 percent of the vote amidst allegations of massive electoral fraud- although this was disputed by the official investigation.

In response, supporters of Mousavi took to the streets in cities across Iran, particularly in Tehran. Many worldwide believed that this might be a massive turning point in Iranian history, even though many influential figures did downplay the protests- including Obama, who noted that Moussavi (who served as Prime Minister of Iran during the first decade of the revolution) may ultimately not have been as different from Ahmadinejad as popularly believed.

Ultimately, the protest movement did not achieve its desired goal of overturning the results of the Presidential election. Ahmadinejad was seated for his second term, however throughout its duration Iran faced economic difficulties, in part due to tighter and tighter sanctions imposed by the Obama administration, which succeeded in getting unprecedented buy-in from Europe, which before had been reluctant to participate in American sanctions on Iran.

The result of all of this was that public opinion in Iran swung decidedly back in favor of the reformists. In 2013, Hassan Rouhani won the next Presidential election with a sweeping mandate, winning a very rare majority of the vote in the first round of balloting (Iran uses a two-round runoff system if no candidate wins an outright majority), with the strongest principalist challenger Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf only receiving 16 percent of the vote.

Rouhani had a decisive mandate within Iran to, if not revolutionize their society, at least to provide a change of direction in favor of more openness to the West. Rohani visited New York City in 2013, and over the next eighteen months the Iran nuclear deal- officially named the Join Comprehensive Plan of Action, was negotiated and agreed to by the United States and the Islamic Republic. It would seemingly pave a pathway not only to Iran’s denuclearization, but also for some sanctions to be relieved and for Iran to emerge at least somewhat from its international pariah status. But the election of Donald Trump would upend that potential future.

Trump was a vocal critic of the Iran deal even as a presidential candidate, and upon taking office he immediately moved to withdraw from the deal. In response, Iran has seemingly moved to resume production of nuclear material that it had held off on after the signing of the JCPOA in 2015. The Soleimani killing took an already deteriorating relationship between the two countries and threw the downward spiral into overdrive.

Although Joe Biden has come into office promising to return to the framework of the nuclear deal, it may already be too late for him to deliver on this pledge. To start 2021, Iran has continued even further in developing enriched uranium, clearly indicating that it has no faith that a changed U.S. administration will deliver on anything it has promised.

To make matters worse for any who hope for a renewed deal, the next Iranian presidential elections- scheduled for June 2021- loom large. Rouhani is term limited, and in any event the events of the Trump era seem to have thoroughly discredited the reformist camp, leading to increased principalist control of Iranian political institutions. In an early opinion poll, a plurality of Iranians express support for Ahmadinejad returning to the Presidency.

Ahmadinejad’s appeal rests not only in his image of defying the United States abroad, but also in his reputation for populist economic policies aimed at helping the poor and working class of Iran, who have been bearing the brunt of the country’s recent economic downturn. It is, however, a distinct possibility that Ahmadinejad may not even be allowed to run- as the country’s Guardian Council (a group of Shi’a clerics who vet every candidate for the Presidency) disqualified him from running for President in the previous election.

Whether the anti-reformist reaction in Iran is personified by the return of Ahmadinejad or someone else, the principalist camp fully returning to power in 2021 seems inevitable. Joe Biden has made one of the principal goals of his administration to restore the image of America in the world following the era of Donald Trump. However, in the case of Iran, things have likely already progressed beyond the point of no return.

Barack Obama achieved a nearly unprecedented breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic; Biden doing so would be an even greater achievement considering the greater degree of difficulty in the prevailing political conditions. However, Obama had an at least somewhat like minded partner on the Iranian side in Hassan Rouhani, whereas Biden will only have a few months of dealing with him before he leaves office. Iran is likely to be one place where the United States’ reputation will be hard pressed to be returned to what it was even ten years ago.