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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri during an army parade in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri during an army parade just outside Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2019 (Office of the Iranian Presidency photo via AP Images).

What Comes Next in the Standoff Between the U.S. and Iran?

Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020

In May 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump followed through on a campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 multilateral deal limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Tehran initially reacted by adopting a posture of strategic patience. But after European attempts to keep the deal afloat failed to deliver any respite from the U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure,” and amid increasingly bellicose rhetoric out of Washington, Iran shifted gears.

Beginning in early 2019, Iran gradually announced a series of what it called reversible breaches of its obligations under the nuclear deal, exceeding limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and the level to which it is enriched. By this March, the International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for documenting Tehran’s compliance with the agreement, reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium had reached 1,000 kilograms—an amount that, if further enriched to much higher levels, provides enough fissile material for a nuclear warhead. The nuclear deal placed a verifiable cap of 300 kilograms on Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles.

Parallel to these moves to pressure the Trump administration over the nuclear deal, Iran began to dramatically ratchet up military tensions with the U.S. beginning in mid-2019. Washington blamed Iran for a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, prompting the U.S. to send additional troops to the region. Soon thereafter, Iranian forces shot down a pilotless U.S. drone they claimed was operating in Iran’s airspace. And in September, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being responsible for a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities.

Against that backdrop of heightened tensions, things came to a head in early January. After a series of violent incidents in Iraq pitting Iranian-backed Shiite militias against U.S. forces, Trump authorized a drone strike that killed Iran’s top military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as he arrived in Baghdad. Fears of an all-out war were averted when Iran limited its riposte to a barrage of ballistic missiles that, while targeting U.S. troops based in Iraq, caused no further deaths. Both sides backed away from escalation, but without fundamentally addressing their differences.

The reimposed U.S. sanctions have forced governments and companies from Europe to Asia to end their economic engagement with Iran, with a particularly severe impact on Iran’s oil exports. The resulting domestic economic tailspin has heightened social and political tensions within Iran. But rather than moderating the regime’s behavior, the heightened pressure from Washington seems to have strengthened the hand of hardliners in Tehran, who emerged as the big winners from parliamentary elections in February.

Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in Washington and Europe have hoped that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden would quickly return the U.S. to compliance with the agreement by removing unilateral sanctions, while also pursuing follow-on talks to address Iran’s missile program and regional behavior. But the Trump administration and Israel seem intent on complicating matters for Biden before he takes office. A series of mysterious explosions over the summer at Iranian military facilities, nuclear installations and power stations had many observers wondering if the U.S., Israel or both were involved in a covert campaign of sabotage. More recently, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in what most observers believe was a particularly audacious covert Israeli operation on Iranian territory. Whether and how Iran responds to these provocations could hamstring the Biden administration’s efforts at diplomatic engagement.

The deterioration in U.S.-Iran relations takes place against the backdrop of a battle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as strategic competition in Lebanon and more recently Iraq. Amid it all, the Iranian population is increasingly caught between the pressure of sanctions from Washington and the authoritarian repression of the regime in Tehran. And the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the hardships they face, while doing nothing to reduce tensions with Washington.

WPR has covered Iran in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What’s in store for U.S.-Iran relations under Biden? Will Iran strengthen its ties with Russia and China to counter American actions, and what role will Europe play? Will outside pressure, combined with the impact of the pandemic, undermine the regime’s domestic control? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Trump’s Mad Dash in the Middle East Could Leave a Mess for Biden

The Trump administration is racing to seal a last-minute diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia and lock in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, risking new tensions and even new wars just as Joe Biden is inaugurated as U.S. president. For Donald Trump, that may be precisely the point.


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Domestic Politics

Iran, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is projecting unity in the face of U.S. saber-rattling, but that is far from the reality on the ground. U.S. provocation may be strengthening hardliners within the regime, but members of the public are frustrated by ongoing domestic repression and the economic privation caused by the reimposed U.S. sanctions. The accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by the Iranian military at the height of the January stand-off with the U.S., as well as the regime’s attempt to cover up its responsibility, also caused public outrage. And the government’s botched handling of the Covid-19 outbreak has done nothing to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Iranian population.

U.S.-Iran Relations

The Trump administration never made it clear exactly what it was looking for from Tehran, a fact that helped to fuel the current crisis. While some in his administration openly pushed for regime change, Trump himself said he was willing to open negotiations with Tehran without any conditions. With that possibility now gone for Trump, he seems to be trying to close off any potential avenues Biden might have had to engage Iran diplomatically as well.

The Regional Picture

Iran’s escalating conflict with Saudi Arabia has actually been more devastating in recent years than the mounting tensions with Washington. The competition between the two Middle East rivals has fueled proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, leading to humanitarian crises in both countries. More recently, Iran was widely believed to be responsible for the pinpoint drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi oil installations. As the war rhetoric between Washington and Tehran heats up, though, much of the region has responded cautiously to the possibility of an American intervention in Iran.


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WPR is increasing its focus on how U.S. foreign policy is likely to change under the Biden administration. While Biden would undoubtedly repudiate Trump’s approach, which was itself a radical break from U.S. foreign policy traditions, it’s unclear whether a restoration of the United States global role is even possible. What immediate challenges will the Biden administration confront? And how will he successfully pivot policy in key areas? This report is just a sampling of our coverage so far of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Download your FREE copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden to learn more today.

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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.

The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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