As Iran pushes closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon, the Biden administration has been ramping up discussions to re-join the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the complexity of the situation is nothing new for President Joe Biden given his role in the historic 2015 agreement, growing international pressures to address the legacies of imperialism and colonialism prompt the need for the Biden administration to adopt a new strategy for Iranian nonproliferation.
Traditional US foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic has been ignorant of Iran’s historically bound motivations for pursuing nuclear weapons: The desire to defend itself against colonial and imperial interests. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the regime has sought to actively challenge and deconstruct the continuing influence of coloniality on the Islamic Republic, which can be seen in many of its domestic and foreign policies. This challenge to colonialism and imperialism is not unique to Iran but rather international in scope. While these pressures range from directly (i.e., ending US control of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Guam) to indirectly anti-imperial (i.e., critiquing the imperial and colonial roots of the climate crisis), the future of nuclear relations between the US and Iran mark an important focal point in contemporary decolonial politics.
While many would argue that US policy toward Iran has been necessary to signal its disapproval of Iranian aggression and curtail its hegemonic aspirations, these perspectives fail to critically understand the motives behind Iran’s nuclear policy. This is akin to a doctor attempting to treat the symptoms of an illness without first identifying what is making the patient sick.
SAME PROBLEMS, NEW SOLUTION?
The early months of the Biden administration have been challenged by conflict in the Middle East. Looming questions over nuclear proliferation in Iran, which has been a longstanding national security priority for the United States, has been at the forefront of Biden’s Middle East concerns. On the heels of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA are calls for renewed discussions between the US and Iran surrounding the future of its nuclear program. These talks came against the backdrop of Iranian elections, which resulted in Ebrahim Raisi becoming president, a conservative politician who’s victory has consolidated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s near-absolute grip on power. Although Iranian conservatives have been historically against most forms of cooperation with the US, recent signals from Tehran have indicated a renewed conservative interest in negotiations with the Biden administration.
There is little room for doubt that Iran’s nuclear aspirations at least partially stem from the anti-imperial and decolonial rhetoric that began with the Islamic Revolution. On the other side of the coin, US animosity toward the Islamic Republic is part of the US imperial and neocolonial legacy in the country.
The Biden administration has indicated its desire — near desperation — to re-enter the JCPOA. Undoubtedly, this push partially comes from President Biden’s desire to protect the legacy of his vice presidency under the Obama administration, as well as to maintain his decades-long vision of peace between the US and Iran. The president’s eagerness is shared by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who cautioned that Iran’s months-long “breakout time” — the time needed to produce enough weapon’s grade uranium for one nuclear weapon — could shrink to weeks if a new nuclear agreement is not quickly reached. This warning comes in the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) discovery of two previously unknown Iranian nuclear sites that contained traces of uranium particles, in addition to an IAEA report that Iran has ceased to cooperate with the UN’s nuclear inspectorate on internationally-agreed upon monitoring of its nuclear program. With ongoing talks between the US and Iran proceeding slowly, it is easy to understand President Biden’s sense of urgency to mitigate hostilities with a potentially nuclear-armed foe early in his presidency.
President Biden’s resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran closely mirrors that of his recent predecessors. From George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” characterization, to Barack Obama’s cautious but hopeful vision of future US-Iran relations, to Trump’s militaristic “maximum pressure” campaign, the overall goal of US foreign policy has remained the same: Preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation. President Biden has not wavered in this pathology of US foreign policy — nor should he. The proliferation of nuclear weapons poses a serious threat not only to US security, but international security as a whole. Nonproliferation, therefore, is a necessity for security.
IRAN’S COLONIAL HANGOVER
Before the revolution in 1979, the US and Iran enjoyed amiable relations extending as far back as the 1800s. The US was considered to be a critical partner in building some of Iran’s most foundational institutions, including fiscal and administrative institutions, infrastructure, schools, places of worship, and hospitals. Additionally, the US held significant influence over Iranian oil and the economy before 1979. However, the ideology of Iran post-1979 made it clear that foreign influence of any type (and especially American influence) would be anathema to the new regime, even constitutionalizing the Islamic Republic’s forbiddance of submitting to foreign powers in any manner. This move was explicitly decolonial and anti-imperial in nature, as the rhetoric of the revolution went beyond crucifying the US and included lashing out against those who had pursued colonial and imperial activities in Iran, such as the UK and Russia.
Since the revolution, Iran has upheld this anti-imperial and decolonial rhetoric, routinely commenting on it’s battle against American “oppression” and “hegemony and arrogance.” The regime has even explicitly branded America’s close relationship with the Iranian monarchy as “neocolonial,” and akin to a US “protectorate.” Clearly, the US is characterized as a contemporary imperial and colonial power in the mind of the Islamic Republic, treating colonial legacies as a disease in need of a decolonial cure.
There is little room for doubt that Iran’s nuclear aspirations at least partially stem from the anti-imperial and decolonial rhetoric that began with the Islamic Revolution. On the other side of the coin, US animosity toward the Islamic Republic is part of the US imperial and neocolonial legacy in the country. Combined with American hegemonic instincts, past US administrations’ stance toward Iran is not solely based on a disapproval of Iran’s militaristic posturing. The US’ early involvement in Iran had religious, security, and economic motivations that supported US ascendance on the world stage. US influence in Iran gained momentum steadily throughout the 20th century, culminating in a 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup to protect the US-aligned Iranian monarchy from the rise of a democratically elected government. By the end of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, the US continued to play a “domineering” role though the pervasion of the American arms industry, the presence of American soldiers in Iran, US influence over Iranian oil, and prominence of hundreds of American companies in the Iranian economy, etc., establishing a clientelist relationship between Iran and the US to satisfy US interests in the region. One diplomat succinctly summed up the US’ pre- and post-revolutionary positions in Iran by remarking “we used to run this country, now we don’t even run our own embassy.”
With a newly hostile regime in power, the US was drawn toward a more aggressive engagement with Iran — and in the Middle East on the whole — in order to secure its interests. Much of this engagement contained imperial and neocolonial elements, such as engaging in destabilizing wars to root out hostile regimes and procure oil resources, prevent non-US aligned states from obtaining nuclear weapons, and impose Western values in the form of democracy and neoliberalism. Further, the US has bolstered its position in the region by both financially and rhetorically supporting Saudi Arabia and a nuclear-armed Israel, Iran’s biggest regional rivals. Though it is up for debate whether US actions are justified, many of these actions have only intensified Iran’s aggressive tone toward the US. To Iran, this behavior is further evidence of US hegemonic and colonialist tendencies. Nuclear politics between both states, therefore, have colonial roots.
BIDEN’S NEXT STEPS
Given the depth of animosity between the US and Iran, the nuclear issue may seem intractable, or even incurable when approaching nuclear contentions from a purely power politics perspective. However, understanding nuclear tensions through a contextually conscious lens provides a path back toward amiable relations with Iran by highlighting the pathology of coloniality that previous US administrations have missed.
In order for the Biden administration to begin anew with Iran — especially to achieve the primary goal of Iranian nuclear nonproliferation — the US should take several concrete steps.
Step One: Commitment to Nuclear Non-Violence
The US must extend its first olive branch to Iran by committing to a mutual desire to prevent nuclear war. Biden’s track record on nuclear engagement makes clear his view that a nuclear exchange would have no “winners.” Scientists have projected that even “limited” nuclear conflict would put the lives of up to two billion people at risk due to global climate disruption and famine. Given the catastrophic effects of nuclear war — not only for Iran and the US, but the entire international community — it should be relatively easy to concede that nuclear war is in the interest of neither state and should be avoided at all costs. However, it is possible — and highly likely — that the Islamic Republic may rebuff a gesture of non-commitment as a further attempt to manipulate Iran’s behavior and public perception surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, Biden’s best course of action should be something radical: A written commitment to nuclear non-violence that is not contingent upon mutual adoption. In other words, the US makes a blanket commitment to nuclear non-violence, regardless of Iran’s course of action.
Ideally, this kind of nuclear non-violence commitment would be geared toward the international community as a whole. However, given the US belief that nuclear weapons are vital to its national security, it is unlikely that President Biden would extend this commitment beyond Iran. Yet, a non-violence commitment toward Iran would still represent a significant and meaningful departure from the imperial pathology that has characterized US foreign policy toward Iran. This step would represent a sign of good faith by the Biden administration, as well as an indication of US values that nuclear conflict poses too many risks to be worth any serious consideration.
Step Two: Sanctions Relief
Second, President Biden should lift sanctions on Iran. While the Biden administration has already proposed sanctions relief as part of recent negotiations with Iran, Biden should relieve sanctions throughout the negotiation process as well. Historically, sanctions have been historically used against Iran as a form of economic imperialism. Being the stronger economic power and the chief bulwark of the international economy, the US is in a much better position to assert dominance over Iran economically, and has done so for the past 40 years. While US economic hostility toward Iran is often justified as a necessary response to Iran’s support for terrorist proxies throughout the region, its nuclear program, domestic human rights abuses, and ballistic missile development, Iran’s decolonial and anti-imperial rhetoric provides a lens understand US sanctions as another form of imperialism.
While it could be argued that sanctions were an appropriate response to Iran’s rhetorical and physical attacks against the United States, on some level, US sanctions represent frustration and an imperial desire to control what was once under the influence of the US. This imperial mentality is clear from the sanctions regime it has imposed on Iran over the past several decades. The sanctions, however, have not worked. According to the Congressional Research Service, each additional sanction on Iran has “adversely affected Iran’s economy” but has not “altered Iran’s pursuit of core strategic objectives.” In other words, sanctions have not altered the Iranian government’s strategic calculus or behavior, and instead has hurt the Iranian people.
Further, economic sanctions have been routinely shown to have adverse effects, such as increasing anti-American sentiments, regressing democracy, bolstering authoritarian power, increasing human rights violations, afflicting innocents more than political elites, and shifting focus from the regime’s problematic behavior to demonizing the imposing state. Thus, US economic strategy toward Iran should not be painted as purely a medium to communicate its frustrations with Iran’s regional activities, but rather a method of imperialism and neocolonialism that is aimed at exerting dominance over the Islamic Republic. However, by relieving the imperial pressures that Iran has repeatedly resisted, sanctions relief presents a path toward renewed US–Iran relations, and ultimately Iranian nonproliferation.
Step Three: Commit to “No First-Use”
Third, and most important in the immediate term, President Biden should advocate for Congress to pass the recently reintroduced “No First Use” policy as a commitment to lowering the risk of accidental nuclear conflict. President Biden has indicated his desire to avoid nuclear engagement by committing to reducing US reliance on nuclear weapons, as well as using America’s nuclear arsenal primarily for deterrence purposes. Additionally, Biden has stated his intentions to revisit current US policy that reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first, signaling his willingness to make this a priority in his nuclear agenda.
Pledging to a No First Use policy has major implications for the colonial politics that have driven tensions between the US and Iran. The threat of nuclear conflict has often been connected to imperialism and colonialism as a tool of coercion wielded by powerful international actors. Not only does the US have a deep history with using nuclear weapons to threaten dissident states, it is the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons on an enemy during war. The Korean and Vietnam Wars are examples of how the United States came dangerously close to employing nuclear weapons to achieve victory against “subversive” non-white countries. While the relatively weaker Korea and Vietnam were unable to deter US intervention, the Cuban Missile Crisis showcases the ways in which nuclear weapons can act as a powerful tools of legitimacy and sovereignty for non-Western states. With Cuba able to use nuclear-armed missiles as a means for protection and deterrence from US invasion — as well as the backing of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union — President John F. Kennedy was forced to recognize Cuba as a nuclear equal, which ultimately led to diplomatic negotiations rather than a unilateral show of force. This same logic is evident in the nuclear conflict between the US and Iran: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is part of a deterrence strategy to ensure the will of the US is not imposed on it. With a No First Use policy in place, the Biden administration would begin to diffuse global nuclear tensions, recover its status as a leader in international peace and security, and lay the groundwork for a relationship built on mutual trust with Iran.
By committing to prevent nuclear war, sanctions relief for Iran, and support for a No First Use policy, the US would signal a major recalculation of its nuclear policy and reassert itself as a leader in maintaining international security. Additionally, these steps would open the door for President Biden to explore long-term options for dismantling the nuclear arsenal, which the US previously committed to through the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). These moves would signal Biden’s commitment to pursuing a more broadly progressive, inclusive, and equitable justice-oriented foreign policy, thus encouraging peace and cooperation in an environment where concerns of social justice and reconciliation are increasingly becoming part of international politics.
The US characterization of the Islamic Republic is undeniably infected with value judgments about how Iran’s behavior (and the region at large) should be molded — a trait inherent to imperialism and colonialism. Iran has made it clear that it will resist all forms of domination by colonial pressures. Some might argue that allowing Iran to act belligerent without repercussions would show weakness or a retreat of US leadership on the world stage. While these concerns are understandable (nuclear proliferation is alarming to almost everyone along the hawk–dove spectrum), it is clear that extant US strategy of approaching Iran with coercion and manipulation is untenable for future negotiations. This is not only relevant for nonproliferation, but also to the related goals of reducing terrorist activity and limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program.
In a truly postcolonial world, coercion is the fine line between imperialism and international leadership. Whether the Biden administration will prioritize a more socially-just foreign policy remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: If President Biden seeks to construct a lasting relationship with Iran, his administration must make a significant departure from conventional US strategy.
Bridgett Neff-Hickman is a master’s student in political science at Colorado State University. Her research and podcast Disrupt focus on critical perspectives of international relations that seek to unpack the influence of colonialism, racism, and capitalism on contemporary politics and US foreign policy.