Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. presidential election could have profound economic, diplomatic and security repercussions for the Islamic Republic. During the campaign, he repeatedly pledged to reenter the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama negotiated in 2015 and President Trump abandoned in 2018, although he suggested it needed to be updated and broadened. “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,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in September 2020. “With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
Biden said that his administration would continue sanctions on Iranian state institutions and high-level officials for human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and developing ballistic missiles. But he also wanted to avoid undercutting Iran’s ability to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are already humanitarian exceptions in place for sanctions, but in practice, most governments and organizations are too concerned about running afoul of U.S. sanctions to offer assistance,” the former vice president acknowledged in April 2020.
Biden proposed a half dozen humanitarian initiatives, such as issuing licenses to pharmaceutical and medical suppliers to protect the flow of humanitarian goods. “Whatever our many, many disagreements with the Iranian government, it’s the right and the humane thing to do.” The following are Biden remarks by topic and an excerpt from the 2020 Democratic Party Platform on Iran.
Op-Ed for CNN on Sept. 13, 2020: “I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America's security interests, to our friends and partners and to its own people. But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran, and there is Trump's way. He ignored our closest allies and walked away -- alone, without a plan -- from a deal that put the world's eyes and ears inside Iran's nuclear program and was verifiably blocking Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon.”
“Here's what I would do as President.
“First, I will make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“Second, I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. 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. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern. This includes working aggressively to free unjustly detained Americans and calling out the regime for its ongoing violations of human rights, including the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari this week and the wrongful detention of political prisoners, such as human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. And we will work to help our partners reduce tensions and help end regional conflicts, including the disastrous war in Yemen.
“I will also take steps to make sure US sanctions do not hinder Iran's fight against Covid-19. And on day one, I will repeal Trump's disgraceful travel ban targeting a number of Muslim-majority countries, among others.”
Interview with CNN on Dec. 3, 2020: “The bottom line is that we can't allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. And look how damaging this policy the president has gone for. He has pulled out to get something tougher. And what have they done? They've increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They're moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. There's the missile issue.
“All those things, I think, are going to be very difficult. But I know one thing. We cannot do this alone. And that's why we have to be part of a larger group, dealing not only with Iran, but with Russia, with China, and a whole range of other issues.”
In an interview with The New York Times on Dec. 1, 2020: “Look, there’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilizing the region.”
“The best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.”
“In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.”
Remarks at the CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic Debate on Jan. 14, 2020: “We're in a situation where our allies in Europe are making a comparison between the United States and Iran, saying both ought to stand down, making a moral equivalence. We have lost our standing in the region. We have lost the support of our allies. The next president has to be able to pull those folks back together, re-establish our alliances, and insist that Iran go back into the agreement, which I believe with the pressure applied as we put on before we can get done.”
Statement to the Council on Foreign Relations published on Aug. 1, 2019: “Iran is a destabilizing actor in the Middle East; it must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. President Trump abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a deal that blocked Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons, as repeatedly verified by international inspectors—with no viable plan to produce a better one. His reckless actions have produced a deep crisis in transatlantic relations and pushed China and Russia closer to Iran. As a result, the United States, rather than Iran, has been isolated. Predictably, Iran has restarted its nuclear program and become more aggressive, moving the region closer to another disastrous war. In short, Trump’s decisions have left us much worse off.
“What Iran is doing is dangerous, but still reversible. If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints. Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish U.S. credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something. I would also leverage renewed international consensus around America’s Iran policy—and a redoubled commitment to diplomacy—to more effectively push back against Tehran’s other malign behavior in the region.”
Speech at the City University of New York on July 11, 2019: “The historic Iran Nuclear Deal we negotiated blocked Iran from gaining nuclear weapons with inspectors on the ground, international inspectors confirming that the agreement was being kept. Trump cast it aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program and become more provocative and raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region. If Tehran returns to compliance with the Deal, I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s destabilizing activities which we are allowed to do and we had partners to do with us.”
Statement on Twitter on June 20, 2019: “President Trump's Iran strategy is a self-inflicted disaster. Two of America's vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz. Trump is failing on both counts.
“He unilaterally withdrew from the hard-won nuclear agreement that the Obama-Biden Administration negotiated to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Trump promised that abandoning the deal and imposing sanctions would stop Iran’s aggression in the region.
“But they’ve only gotten more aggressive. Trump also promised that walking away would somehow lead to a better deal – instead, the predictable has happened: Iran is building back up its nuclear capability.
“It’s sadly ironic that the State Department is now calling on Iran to abide by the very deal the Trump Administration abandoned.
“By walking away from diplomacy, Trump has made military conflict more likely. Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need.
“Make no mistake: Iran continues to be a bad actor that abuses human rights and supports terrorist activities throughout the region.
“What we need is presidential leadership that will take strategic action to counter the Iranian threat, restore America's standing in the world, recognize the value of principled diplomacy, and strengthen our nation and our security by working strategically with our allies.”
Regional Meddling and Proxies
Op-Ed for CNN on Sept. 13, 2020: “[W]e will continue to push back against Iran's destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region. Drawing on the record-setting US-Israel security assistance agreement signed when I was Vice President, America will also work closely with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies. We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran's human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.
“If Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops. But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”
Remarks on Syria at a town hall in Davenport, Iowa on Oct. 16, 2019: “Look, they’ve now [the Trump administration] handed over … control of northwest Syria, back to the brutal Russian and Iranian backed regime.
“How does this keep America safe? How does it advance our interests around the world? The answer is quite simple. It doesn’t. It devastates us. How does it benefit anyone other than our adversaries? Russia, which is now at the table, to further expand its influence throughout Syria, encourage Iran to be more engaged on the western shore or eastern shore of the Mediterranean.”
“Iran and Hezbollah now are going to be more emboldened to use Syria to launch attacks against Israel from the Golan and other places.”
Trump “also authorized a deployment of thousands of additional troops, thousands of additional troops into the Gulf and Saudi Arabia to deal with another crisis of his making, one with Iran.”
“But this time, the crisis we have to deal with in Iran, we have to go it alone. None of our partners want in on the deal. America, you caused the problem, you deal, you deal with the Quds Force. You deal with the terrorists coming out of Iran, not us. So don’t believe Trump’s con here. This is not American leadership. This is bending to the will of a strong man and this is not an end of forever wars. It’s a recipe for more forever wars.”
Remarks on Jan. 7, 2019: “The Iraqi parliament has voted to eject all American and coalition forces from the country. And however you may feel about an American military presence in the Middle East, there is a right way and a wrong way to draw down our troop presence. Getting unceremoniously kicked out is unequivocally the wrong way. And if we do end up having to leave, that would be another boon to Iran — tipping the balance of power in the region.”
U.S. Killing of Soleimani
Remarks on Jan. 7, 2020: “The haphazard decision-making process that led up to it, the failure to consult our allies or Congress, and the reckless disregard for the consequences that would surely follow — was dangerously incompetent.
“Turning the page on two decades of large-scale military deployments and open-ended wars in the Middle East does not mean the United States will abandon a region where we and our partners still have enduring interests. Democrats believe it’s past time, however, to rebalance our tools, engagement, and relationships in the Middle East away from military intervention—leading with pragmatic diplomacy to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, stable, and free region. “Democrats will call off the Trump Administration’s race to war with Iran and prioritize nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue. Democrats believe the United States should not impose regime change on other countries and reject that as the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran. We believe the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. The Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA isolated us from our allies and opened the door for Iran to resume its march toward a nuclear weapons capacity that the JCPOA had stopped. That’s why returning to mutual compliance with the agreement is so urgent. The nuclear deal was always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran. Democrats support a comprehensive diplomatic effort to extend constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression. “Democrats also believe we need to reset our relations with our Gulf partners to better advance our interests and values. The United States has an interest in helping our partners contend with legitimate security threats; we will support their political and economic modernization and encourage efforts to reduce regional tensions. But we have no interest in continuing the blank-check era of the Trump Administration, or indulging authoritarian impulses, internal rivalries, catastrophic proxy wars, or efforts to roll back political openings across the region.”
“In the wake of such an enormous escalation that has exploded geo-politics in the region and put the United States and Iran on a collision course, what would we expect of an American President — and what have we heard from President Trump?
“We have not heard a sober-minded explanation to reassure the American people about his decision and its consequences.
“Not level-headed words meant to dial down tensions and take us off the path of conflict.
“No press conference or consultation with Congress.
“No — all we have heard from this president is tweets. Threats. Tantrums.
“And all we have heard from his administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, and repeated assertions of an imminent threat, without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion.
“And since this is a president with a history of lying about everything — who has destroyed his own credibility, and that of the United States on the global stage — neither the American people, nor our allies, are inclined to take his word for it.
“If there was an imminent threat that required extraordinary action, then we are owed that explanation — and the facts to back it up.
“These are matters of deadly import, so let me be unmistakably clear: Donald Trump does not have the authority to go to war with Iran without Congressional authorization.
“Working with Congress is not an optional part of the job. Presidential notification to Congress about the need to exercise war powers cannot be satisfied in 280 characters or less.
“And no president should ever take the United States to war without securing the informed consent of the American people.
“So — because he refuses to level with the American people about the danger in which he has placed American troops and our diplomatic personnel and civilians, as well as our partners and allies, or to demonstrate even a modicum of presidential gravitas — I will.”
“Make no mistake: this outcome of strategic setbacks, heightened threats, chants of ‘death to America” once more echoing across the Middle East, Iran and its allies vowing revenge. This was avoidable.”
“Trump’s impulsive decision may well do more to strengthen Iran’s position in the region than any of Soleimani’s plots would have ever accomplished.”
War with Iran
Statement about President Trump’s veto of a war powers resolution on May 8, 2020: “The President’s message in vetoing the war powers resolution on Iran demonstrates yet again his contempt for the U.S. Congress as a co-equal branch of government. The war power is shared under our Constitution, for a simple but profound reason: the Framers understood that the solemn decision to take the country to war requires the informed consent of the American people, as expressed through their elected representatives and their President. When I am President, I will work closely with Congress on decisions to use force, not dismiss congressional legislation as ‘very insulting.’
“One thing is unmistakably clear: Donald Trump’s policy decisions have increased the risk of war in the Middle East. Two years ago today, he withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement — a deal that was verifiably blocking Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Back then, he promised us a better deal. He hasn’t delivered. Instead, Iran has ramped up its nuclear enrichment activity, moving them closer to the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb. And Iran has become even more provocative in the region, increasing the danger for American forces stationed in the Middle East.
“Despite his veto of the congressional joint resolution, Donald Trump should understand this: he does not have the authority to go to war with Iran without Congressional authorization.”
Comments on the PBS Newshour on Jan. 4, 2018: “When we were in office, we had this dangerous situation. The Iranian navy, picked up and arrested and took on board American sailors. I was with John Kerry. John Kerry immediately got on his cell phone and called [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif]. Four calls later… it was settled diplomatically. They were freed, and there was no war.”
Statement on April 2, 2020: “In times of global crisis, America should lead. We should be the first to offer help to people who are hurting or in danger. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been. And, in the midst of this deadly pandemic that respects no borders, the United States should take steps to offer what relief we can to those nations hardest hit by this virus — including Iran — even as we prioritize the health of the American people.
“Iran is struggling to contain one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. While the Iranian government has failed to respond effectively to this crisis, including lying and concealing the truth from its own people, and it continues to act provocatively in the region, the Iranian people are hurting desperately. It is bad enough that the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in favor of a "maximum pressure" strategy that has badly backfired, encouraging Iran to become even more aggressive and restart its nuclear program. It makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to compound that failure with cruelty by inhibiting access to needed humanitarian assistance. Whatever our profound differences with the Iranian government, we should support the Iranian people.
“There are already humanitarian exceptions in place for sanctions, but in practice, most governments and organizations are too concerned about running afoul of U.S. sanctions to offer assistance. As a result, our sanctions are limiting Iran’s access to medical supplies and needed equipment. The Trump Administration should take immediate steps to address this problem and streamline channels for banking and public health assistance from other countries in response to the health emergency in Iran.
“Specific steps should include: issuing broad licenses to pharmaceutical and medical device companies; creating a dedicated channel for international banks, transportation companies, insurers, and other service firms to help Iranians access life-saving medical treatment; issuing new sanctions guidance to these groups and international aid organizations to make it clear how they can immediately, directly, and legally respond to the tragedy in Iran, without fear of penalty; and, for entities already conducting enhanced due diligence, it should issue comfort letters to reassure them that they will not be subject to U.S. sanctions if they engage in humanitarian trade with Iran to support its COVID-19 response. The administration should also consider similar steps to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not inhibit live-saving medical assistance to other countries hard hit by the virus.
“The administration’s offer of aid to Iran is insufficient if not backed by concrete steps to ensure the United States is not exacerbating this growing humanitarian crisis. Whatever our many, many disagreements with the Iranian government, it’s the right and the humane thing to do. And Iran also should make a humanitarian gesture and allow detained American citizens to return home.
“To stop this pandemic effectively, every country on earth will need to work together. We must address COVID-19 outbreaks wherever they occur, because as long as this virus is spreading anywhere in the world, it is a danger to public health everywhere. Artificially limiting the flow of international humanitarian assistance to pursue a political point will not only allow the Iranian government to deflect responsibility for its own botched response, it will increase the threat this virus poses to the American people, now and in the future.”
Human Rights Abuses
Iran’s cruel execution of Navid Afkari is a travesty. No country should arrest, torture, or execute peaceful protestors or activists.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 12, 2020
Iran must free its other political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, and release unjustly detained Americans. https://t.co/Jj9QZbyQL7
Democratic Party Platform in July 2020
“Turning the page on two decades of large-scale military deployments and open-ended wars in the Middle East does not mean the United States will abandon a region where we and our partners still have enduring interests. Democrats believe it’s past time, however, to rebalance our tools, engagement, and relationships in the Middle East away from military intervention—leading with pragmatic diplomacy to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful, stable, and free region.
“Democrats will call off the Trump Administration’s race to war with Iran and prioritize nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue. Democrats believe the United States should not impose regime change on other countries and reject that as the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran. We believe the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. The Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA isolated us from our allies and opened the door for Iran to resume its march toward a nuclear weapons capacity that the JCPOA had stopped. That’s why returning to mutual compliance with the agreement is so urgent. The nuclear deal was always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran. Democrats support a comprehensive diplomatic effort to extend constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression.
“Democrats also believe we need to reset our relations with our Gulf partners to better advance our interests and values. The United States has an interest in helping our partners contend with legitimate security threats; we will support their political and economic modernization and encourage efforts to reduce regional tensions. But we have no interest in continuing the blank-check era of the Trump Administration, or indulging authoritarian impulses, internal rivalries, catastrophic proxy wars, or efforts to roll back political openings across the region.”
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, wrote the summary for this article. Caitlin Crahan, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided research support.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons