The Biden administration must end US addiction to sanctions

The Biden administration has an opportunity to end America's dangerous addiction to sanctions
8 min read

Giorgio Cafiero and Assal Rad

05 November, 2021
To truly distinguish itself from the Trump administration, the Biden administration should seriously examine the very foundations of US sanctions policy on Iran and elsewhere, writes Giorgio Cafiero and Assal Rad.
Iranians drive beneath a billboard urging support for locally manufactured home appliances at Valiasr Square in the capital Tehran, on 9 October 2021. [Getty]

As a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden sought to distinguish himself from then-President Donald Trump in countless domains. These included sensitive foreign policy issues such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Trump's anti-Iranian campaign of "maximum pressure." 

While Biden promised a different approach to Iran, more than nine months into his presidency the administration has shown that the distinctions between Biden and Trump's Iran policies are more about words than deeds.

Despite a crucial window of opportunity early on to return to the JCPOA—while the engagement-friendly Rouhani administration remained in power—Biden was slow to address this critical foreign policy concern.

Worse yet, by maintaining Trump era sanctions and remaining outside of the landmark nuclear deal that Trump abrogated in May 2018, the Biden administration essentially carried on the "maximum pressure" policies of Biden's predecessor.

Though Biden's administration did pursue six rounds of nuclear negotiations aimed at getting back in the deal, it sought reentry under specific terms and, in effect, left "maximum pressure" in place.

Overall, Biden's Iran policy has shown more continuity than genuine change from Trump's as demonstrated again by the recent "sanctions review" that the Biden administration released on 18 October.

While Biden supporters, anti-war activists, and humanitarian advocates had anticipated a serious analysis of US sanctions policies, which have devastated the ordinary populations in targeted countries and exacerbated the damage of the pandemic, the report was short, vague, and looked more like an attempt to show an ostensible difference with the Trump administration than an actual effort to bring change. 

In its seven pages of text, there was no mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor any specific humanitarian issues that US-imposed sanctions have exacerbated in numerous countries. When Senator Jon Ossoff questioned Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo, he pointed out the inadequacies of the report for failing to address any instance in which US sanctions have been ineffective. 


Instead, the document concludes that sanctions on Iran and other countries have been working and identified challenges to US sanctions that must be overcome to continue this brutal policy. The "sanctions review" explained how the current administration is focused on making the reasons for targeting entities/individuals clearer, working more multilaterally when imposing sanctions, and enhancing the interagency process.

The report does mention the need to lessen the humanitarian impact of sanctions: 

"Treasury will continue to review its existing authorities to consider the unintended consequences of current sanctions regimes on humanitarian activity necessary to support basic human needs, as well as potential changes to address them while continuing to deny support to malicious actors. We believe this effort is worthy of significant time and effort to ensure the world understands that the provision of legitimate humanitarian assistance reflects American values."

Following the release of the "sanctions review," Adeyemo stated: "our goal now...will be making sure that we look over the 37 programs and the authorities, and looking at how we apply these lessons to them retrospectively." 

He went on to assert, "Our goal is to make sure that humanitarian assistance flows to people in conflicted areas and heavily sanctioned areas while also maintaining our sanctions regime going forward, and we think that's possible working closely with humanitarian aid organizations." 


However, the text provides no details about how to lessen the harmful humanitarian impacts of sanctions such as a timeline or any discussion about the specific steps which will be taken next to mitigate the harm that the US-imposed sanctions have had on the citizens of Iran and other countries.

If the Biden administration is serious about humanitarian impacts, it must go beyond words and apply these principles in its sanctions assessment and execution of policy without further delay, including immediate steps to address US sanctions that are impeding global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two days after the sanctions review was released, a report broke that revealed important information about the Iranian delay in rejoining nuclear talks in Austria.

The piece cites European and Iranian sources who explained that Tehran reduced its initial demand for a guarantee that a future US administration would not exit the deal and reimpose sanctions, as President Trump did, to a commitment that President Biden would keep the US in the JCPOA and not reimpose sanctions for the duration of his own presidential term. 

Of course, such a guarantee would be contingent upon Iran remaining in compliance with its obligations under the deal as well.

Despite this apparently reasonable request, the Biden administration reportedly declined to promise it would uphold its end of the deal for the next three years, citing "legal obstacles." If such impediments exist on the American side, it is important for the administration to provide a transparent explanation.

It is worth asking why Biden vowed to bring the US back into the nuclear deal if he has not done so, has failed to remedy the humanitarian impact of sanctions in a global crisis that he called on Trump to address, and has directed his negotiators to give Tehran no basic assurances that his administration will follow through on its commitments.

After all, why negotiate with the US if the administration is not even willing to commit to upholding its obligations under the accord?

US sanctions on Iran, which Trump imposed after pulling the US out of the nuclear deal in 2018, have not been effective, even if they have proven to be quite harmful to ordinary Iranians.

This is evident in the fact that Iran's enrichment of uranium has only increased amid the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" and the de facto continuation of it under Biden. The Islamic Republic has not collapsed, Tehran's relationships with non-state actors remain in place, and the behaviours that Washington hopes to alter continue or accelerate. 

Put simply, there is no way to persuasively argue that the Trump era sanctions on Tehran have done anything to pressure the Iranians into changing their policies to appease the United States. Instead, such sanctions have pushed the Islamic Republic closer to China, while making Iran more creative in terms of its strategies for circumventing US-imposed sanctions as the country seeks to weather Washington's financial warfare. 

What Biden should do is bring the US back to the JCPOA immediately and commit to keeping Washington in compliance with the accord so long as he is in the White House and Tehran is upholding its end of the bargain.

As the administration seeks to pivot away from the Middle East, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically and restoring the agreement that the US negotiated during Biden's time as Vice President would help the US leadership resolve the standoff without a single shot being fired. It would also demonstrate that the Biden administration is indeed changing Washington's foreign policy and moving the US past the failed policies of his predecessor. 

By lifting Trump era sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran's full compliance with the JCPOA, the administration could advance US national interests in the Middle East, strengthen global security, and add some credibility to Biden's talk about a more humanitarian and ethical US foreign policy. Given the strong support for the nuclear accord in Europe, such a move would also bode positively for Transatlantic alliances, which has been another foreign policy goal of Biden's administration.

There is possibly a reason for optimism about Biden's administration changing its attitude on this issue of Iran sanctions given a recent joint statement from western leaders which says:

"The current situation underscores the importance of a negotiated solution that provides for the return of Iran and the US to full compliance with the JCPOA and provides the basis for continued diplomatic engagement to resolve remaining points of contention – both our concerns and Iran's. In this spirit, we welcome President Biden's clearly demonstrated commitment to return the US to full compliance with the JCPOA and to stay in full compliance, so long as Iran does the same. We are convinced that it is possible to quickly reach and implement an understanding on return to full compliance and to ensure for the long term that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Return to JCPOA compliance will provide sanctions lifting with long-lasting implications for Iran's economic growth."

The Biden administration should take a concrete step towards COVID-19 sanctions relief or a goodwill gesture to rebuild trust and get the Iranians back in, while simultaneously turning the tables on them so the choice not to reciprocate would be on them.

However, in order to truly distinguish itself from the Trump administration, the Biden administration should more seriously examine the foundation of US sanctions policy.

Any effort to end the US-led forever wars must take into account the impact of sanctions as an extension of war, which has devastating effects on civilian populations. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, US sanctions carried a heavy cost for millions of innocent people across the globe. That efforts to lift sanctions in a global health crisis have been so hollow is a testament to the policies' cruelty and inhumanity.

Assal Rad is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her PhD in history at the University of California, Irvine.

Follow her on Twitter: @assalrad.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.