Progressives Are Losing Patience with Biden’s Iran Policy

Left-wing voices on foreign policy say pressuring the administration may serve their goals better than joining it.

David Klion
March 9, 2021
A missile is launched in a drill in Iran. Photo: Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP, File

IN EARLY FEBRUARY, Politico reported that Matt Duss, who serves as foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, was expected to depart Capitol Hill for a role in the Biden administration’s State Department. Although it had not been finalized at the time, the news was generally welcomed by the progressive foreign policy community as a sign that the Biden team is serious about its pledge to welcome input from the left into the foreign policy process. Duss—long an outspoken critic of US military interventions in the Middle East, and of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories—has in recent years become one of the most prominent such voices on Capitol Hill. But last week, Jewish Insider reported that Duss will not in fact be joining the administration.

Duss says he made a conscious decision to withdraw his name, contrary to reporting from Jewish Insider, which quoted anonymous speculation that Duss’s outspokenness on Twitter may have prevented his serious consideration for an administration role. (Duss says Jewish Insider never contacted him for comment. The State Department declined my request for comment on Duss’s talks with the administration.) “The Biden team and I had been talking for several months about a State Department role, but I decided that the best place to keep working to support a progressive agenda is with Senator Sanders,” Duss told me in an interview.

Duss’s choice to remain independent from the administration reflects the concerns of a vocal faction of dovish foreign policy thinkers, who are increasingly signalling their dissatisfaction with Biden’s initial moves in the Middle East. On issues ranging from re-entering the Iran deal to re-evaluating Washington’s relationship with regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, many on the left now believe that Biden’s team risks falling short of expectations set during and after last year’s presidential election. After a brief honeymoon period, it is rapidly becoming clear to this cohort that its efforts are better spent pressuring Biden from the outside rather than working in lockstep with the White House on foreign policy.

Much of the frustration with the Biden administration’s progress to date stems from its failure to swiftly rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), which for the past six years has functioned as a proxy for wider debates over US foreign policy. The 2015 JCPOA, one of Barack Obama’s signature international achievements, divided congressional Democrats as well as leading Jewish institutions. For progressives like Duss, it was a galvanizing cause, and represented a major victory against Washington’s so-called foreign policy “Blob,” which maintains a uniquely aggressive posture toward Iran. In a measure of the deal’s success, both on its own terms and in shifting the Democratic Party leftward on the Middle East, even Democrats who had initially opposed the agreement objected when the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. (One key Democrat who made this shift was Sen. Chuck Schumer, now the Majority Leader.) Last summer’s Democratic platform raised progressive hopes for a swift and unambiguous renunciation of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal: The product of negotiations between the Biden and Sanders campaigns, it described “returning to mutual compliance with the agreement” as an “urgent” priority.

But instead of following the advice of progressives and resuming compliance with the deal as quickly as possible, Biden’s team has dawdled, insisting that Tehran take the first steps toward complying with the agreement even though the US withdrew when Iran was cooperating. In the meantime, the administration has created new obstacles to diplomacy. On February 26th, Biden took the first military action of his presidency by ordering airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia in Syria that had killed a Filipino contractor with the US military in Iraq; two days later, Iran rejected an offer to resume direct negotiations with the US over rejoining the JCPOA.

“The Syria strikes were disheartening, to say the least,” said Erica Fein, the advocacy director for the nonprofit Win Without War, which supports reentering the nuclear deal. “Syria is not a place that should be used to send messages back and forth between Iranian-backed proxies and the United States. You can’t bomb your way to peace.”

Trita Parsi—a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-interventionist think tank, and a leading figure among Iranian American supporters of the JCPOA—agrees. While acknowledging that “there’s not any particularly good reason to doubt the intent of the administration to get back into the JCPOA”—both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, played important roles in negotiating the JCPOA under Obama—Parsi said there are “legitimate questions about this strategy they have chosen.” He noted, for example, the administration’s decision not to lift any of the sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran before re-entry into the deal. While doing so would have risked a political fight with the deal’s opponents in Washington, it would also have sent a conciliatory message that could have paved the way for diplomacy. “They want to get it done, but they don’t want to spend political capital on it,” Parsi said, speculating that Iran is a low priority for Biden, who is primarily concerned with his domestic agenda of pandemic relief and economic stimulus.

Joe Cirincione, the former president of the Ploughshares Fund, a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute, and a major figure in the campaign to support the Iran nuclear deal, said the failure to immediately reverse Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA has created a conundrum for the new administration. A number of senior administration officials “seem to have bought the argument that the Trump sanctions give us leverage that we can use to get concessions from the Iranians,” he said. But by getting into a military back and forth with Iran’s proxies, he argues, the US risks falling into a “commitment trap” in which threats must be backed up, retaliatory force must be matched, and reentering negotiations becomes more politically difficult for both sides.

In the absence of clear direction from Biden himself, the question of how to approach Iran has become a subject of heated debate within the president’s national security team. Multiple people I spoke with outlined a rough divide between a more dovish faction that prioritizes rejoining the deal—exemplified by Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy to Iran, who has already faced significant attacks from the right—and a more hawkish faction, exemplified by Brett McGurk, a member of the National Security Council who previously served in the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations and was an architect of the military “surge” in Iraq. The Trump administration left the State Department badly underfunded, a legacy that will take time for Biden to undo; thus, diplomats like Malley are at a disadvantage in terms of staffing and influence compared to the Pentagon and the National Security Council. The result, according to Cirincione, is “a bureaucratic imbalance that tends to favor military options.” But defaulting to military solutions, he said, risks escalating tensions that could “compromise the broader strategic objective of getting back into negotiations with Iran.” 

Besides the executive branch, the Senate also presents obstacles for advocates of a less militarized foreign policy. “The administration is setting the tone, and with a few exceptions—Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Chris Murphy—Democratic senators are loath to be seen as far afield from where the administration might be,” said Fein. While a handful of Senate Democrats may criticize the administration’s slow-walking of the Iran deal, most are unlikely to choose this particular issue when picking their battles with the new president. 

Progressives also have to contend with Robert Menendez, the new Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who opposed the original Iran deal, and who wields significant leverage over foreign policy in the evenly divided Senate. Cirincione suggested that the administration may be feeling the need “to tread lightly on Middle East issues while they’re trying to get their nominees through a committee headed by a conservative, hawkish Democratic senator who’s closer to AIPAC than J Street.” This may partly account for the reticence of Wendy Sherman, Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of State, to defend her own role in helping the Obama administration to negotiate the JCPOA during questioning from Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee last week. “Robert Menendez could completely screw up the State Department appointments,” Cirincione said. “It doesn’t matter that the majority of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to move forward with diplomacy with Iran. If Menendez doesn’t want to, he can stop it.” 

No one I spoke with seemed ready to write off the administration’s openness to the progressive priorities set last year, when the Biden team pledged to listen to Sanders and his allies on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. There have already been a number of positive developments for the left on the foreign policy front. Hours after Biden took office, the US rejoined the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, from which Trump withdrew in 2017. In early February, the administration announced it would end US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal military campaign in Yemen, which started under Obama and escalated under Trump. And last week, Biden called for repealing and replacing the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has functioned as a blank check for the past four administrations to wage open-ended war throughout the Muslim world. All of these steps were included in last year’s Democratic platform thanks to the efforts of progressive activists, and all of them suggest that Blinken, Sullivan, and other senior administration officials are sincere in trying to move US foreign policy beyond the 9/11 era. 

But Iran presents a more difficult political challenge, owing to its role in supporting militias that have directly clashed with US forces in Iraq, and due to pressure from close US allies—such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel—who regard Iran as their major regional antagonist. Parsi traced the recent strikes in Syria to the administration’s efforts to manage those alliances. Biden wanted to show “that just because he wants to [negotiate] with Iran, he’s not going to be a pushover,” he said. “The only audience that would need to hear that would be the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, has consistently and vehemently opposed the JCPOA from the beginning and cheered Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. His position has set the tone for much of the domestic resistance to re-entering the agreement; Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, told an Israeli newspaper in January that he opposes reentering the deal because it would pose a security threat to Israel.

Parsi also expressed concern that the efforts last year by a coalition of organizations—including Ploughshares, the Quincy Institute, Win Without War, MoveOn, J Street, and others—to commit nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates to reentering the JCPOA and to secure the JCPOA a place in the Democratic platform were now being squandered. “All of this was done so that Biden would have an easier time getting this done quickly,” Parsi said. “Instead, it was wasted in these last two months.” Given that Iran is holding its presidential elections in June—which may usher in a more hardline government—the window for Biden to reenter the JCPOA without potentially facing additional obstacles is narrowing.

“There’s been a desire to give the Biden team a chance to get settled and to staff up,” said Fein, referring to the general mood among foreign policy progressives in recent weeks. “And I think people are maybe losing patience with that approach”—a sentiment echoed by others who spoke with The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman earlier this week. It’s in this context that Duss’s decision to stay with Sanders is significant. Just in the past week, Duss has publicly taken multiple positions at odds with the Biden administration on Twitter: on Israel’s failure to distribute Covid-19 vaccines in the West Bank, on holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and on calling for a more conciliatory US approach to Iran. It is unlikely he would have felt free to voice such positions while working at the State Department; by remaining in his current position, he retains a platform with which to dissent from the administration. “Matt’s decision reflects the concerns that many have about the orientation of this administration, and whether they are ready to truly reimagine US national security,” said Cirincione.

Many progressives are now realizing that they may have to assume a more critical posture with regard to the administration in order to advance their priorities. “Ultimately our goal is to end the failed status quo foreign policy,” said Fein, “and we’re going to continue to pressure Biden and his team where we think they’re falling short.”

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.