What does the new Biden administration mean for future US – Iran relations?

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The strenuous relationship between the United States and Iran had seen a turn for the worst under the Trump administration. Under the new Biden administration, is there any hope for change? 

Have the recent air strikes from the US sent mixed messages to Iran, or is there still hope for better relations in the future? 

The relationship between the two countries has been tense since the 1979 Revolution. Both Iran and the US made use of historical events as the foundation for their enmity (Ansari, 2019). Iran’s political “discourse is replete with historical metaphors and analogies most obviously about the perfidy of western imperialism and the hypocrisy of western adherence to the ideals of democracy” (Ansari, 2019 pg.450). They view the 1953 coup d’état, where the US and the UK joined forces to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, as the foundational reason for their mistrust towards the US (Lanz, 2019). As a response, the US reminds us of the hostage crisis in 1979, which was the siege of the US embassy in Tehran by militarised students who supported the revolution. Ultimately, Iran kept 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for up to 444 days (Kinzer, 2008). The historical significance of this is illustrated through tweets by Donald Trump, threatening to bomb 52 sites in Iran, which represent the 52 hostages taken by the Islamic Republic during the revolution (Manson, Cornish and Bozorgmehr, 2020). 

The tensions between the US and Iran under the Trump administration escalated like never before. Trump’s decision to back out from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ultimately resulted in Iran ignoring its own commitments and restarting its plans of enriching uranium to weapon grade. Resulting in further sanctions from the US on Iran’s oil exports, and the imminent threat of war in the first months of 2020; it’s safe to say that there has been a fraught relationship between the two countries. The economic strain, as well as the political issues that have resulted from Trump’s decisions in the last four years, are likely to impact the new Biden administration, which has shown interest in negotiating a new deal with Iran (Erlanger, 2021). However, it begs the question if and to what extent the relations will actually improve? 

Under President Obama, the relationship between the US and Iran seemed to have reached new highs, with talks that ultimately led to the JCPOA, bringing both sides to one table. This allowed a lift on sanctions, and curbed Iran’s plans on uranium enrichment (Hurst, 2018). This era was one of relative prosperity for Iran, as the economy managed to recover since the signing of the agreement. It appeared that for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the two countries were working together. This was, until the Trump administration announced in 2016 that the US would back out from the agreement, imposing further sanctions on Iran, which resulted in growing tensions and the economic downfall of Iran (Zimmt and Fadlon, 2019). The increased sanctions have caused a downturn in Iran’s fortunes, particularly affecting the poorest citizens who have seen the rise of inflation make it increasingly difficult to put food on the table. As if the economic turmoil was not bad enough, Iran’s regime is notorious for its constant and numerous human rights violations against its own people. 

(The data from the World Bank indicating annual GDP growth (y-axis: GDP %). Illustrating a steady rise from after the signing of the JCPOA to the subsequent year when the US withdrew from the agreement, where there is a sharp decline.)

The US-Iran relations, however, grew evermore strenuous from 2019, with the onset of the military conflict during the Persian Gulf Crisis. These tensions peaked with the killing of General Soleimani, by the US forces in Iraq in January 2020 (BBC, 2020). The most recent attacks, the airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria on the 26th February, gave rise to many questions about the future of the two countries’ relations. 

But what will the new administration mean for future relations with Iran? 

The Biden administration coming to power has given hope to the Islamic Republic to continue to implement diplomatic solutions for the two countries’ problems. With President Biden showing interest during his campaign in renewing the JCPOA, recent talks illustrate that his administration is interested in creating a deal stronger than before. (Jakes, Crowley, Sanger and Fassihi, 2021). The airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria on the 26th February carried out by the Biden administration illustrated a relatively moderate response compared to the ongoing attacks in the Islamic Republic (Paton Walsh, 2021). Ultimately, it appears that the strikes carried out pose no serious threat to the potential diplomatic talks. 

Considering the way in which Iran had committed to the agreement up until the official retraction of the US, the disappointment with the JCPOA had been that by the time the agreement had taken effect , there was little time for the growth of diplomacy till Trump had been elected. (Geranmayeh, Slavin, & Shah, 2020). The potential new deal, if developed sooner, could result in better relations for the two countries. 

The reformist politicians, such as President Rouhani, hope that Iran will return to the JCPOA. Iran can expect the US to lift sanctions which will allow the exports of goods, resulting in an improvement to the economy. Rouhani has made it clear that the US should make the first move (BBC News, 2021). This ideology set the narrative for the past few years which illustrates that Iran is willing to negotiate if the sanctions are eased (Geranmayeh, Slavin, & Shah, 2020). Therefore, initiating the negotiations is in the hands of the US, with President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei stating that the US will have to synchronise the steps, requiring the US to carry out its own commitments for Iran to follow. 

The upcoming election in Iran which will lead to the end of President Rouhani’s tenure, can also have impacts on the future relations between the two countries. The likelihood of having diplomatic talks will be slimmer if a hardliner leader comes to power. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei threatened to continue enriching uranium at weapon level from its current 20% (Hafezi, 2021). Other hardline politicians made calls to remove Iran from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meaning that there will no longer be a deal with the UN that prevents the enrichment of uranium (Financial Times, 2021). This also considering the outcome for the latest parliamentary election was in favour of hardliner politicians, adding further complications to potential negotiations. Therefore, if the Biden administration wants to seek an agreement with Iran it will need to act quickly, as the opportunity could be lost after Iran’s upcoming Presidential elections. 

It appears that the future of the two countries’ relations could be taking a turn for the better, with President Rouhani still in power, as well as the apparent blessing of the Supreme Leader, who ultimately will make the final decision. Paired with the Biden administration’s willingness to negotiate, there could be an agreement made in the following months.


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By Sarah Jalali

Sarah is studying a MSc in International Public Policy. Interested in Iranian foreign and domestic politics. She is passionate about foreign policy, human rights, and ethics.