How Should Biden Approach an Aggressive Iran? | Michael Robinett and Steven Young

Iran is a highly aggressive state with nuclear ambitions who invests billions into sponsoring global terrorism. Iran’s continued aggression not only poses a threat to the international community, but to its citizens as well. It uses the money of its people to fund terrorism while simultaneously having its economy slowed down by defensive sanctions from international society for its behaviour. The US – which is central to the Iran problem – has hitherto applied a bundle strategy: coalitions, sanctions, conditional promises of normalized relations, and force. The challenge remains; Iran has not changed.

Today, the Biden administration must determine what to do and do it quickly. Unfortunately, Biden must do this while being domestically besieged by COVID and deep political divides. Iran’s aggression clearly demonstrates the eternal importance of foreign policy. However, Biden has not yet clearly signalled what he will do ….

Iran and Terrorism

Iran has been associated with sponsoring terrorism since at least 1970, and the US Department of State claims Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of transnational terrorism (Fayazi 2017). Iran denies this, rebranding these sponsors as support for freedom fighter militias. However, it is doubtful the atrocious conduct of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen is merely an expression of nationalists fighting for rights. Iran spends nearly 1 billion USD per year funding them and other groups across the globe; taking money from Iranian citizens to do so (Sales 2018).

The Global Terrorism Database helps frame the impact of attack frequencies and Iranian financial backing. If parameters are confined to cases – without doubt, successful attacks, and involving only the Iran-funded groups Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthi extremists – Iran’s financial activity is directly associated with 1,377 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2018 (GTD). If criteria is relaxed to include cases in doubt for perfect cell ascription and unsuccessful attacks for the same period, Iran is financially associated with at least 2,231 attacks (GTD). Though these are just three groups they fund, the data show that over the course of 48 years. Iran is also financially associated with between 27 and 46 terrorism incidents per year.

American Presidents and Iran

President Obama and global partners developed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran’s agreement to scale back its nuclear programme and to admit inspectors (Newsround 2018). Unfortunately, efforts proved temporary and only stalled the programme. The JCPOA failed to stop Iran in other aspects: developing non-nuclear weapons and supporting regional proxies (Stafford 2017). The Trump administration thus responded with a series of moves. First, Trump criticised the JCPOA and withdrew America as a signatory in 2018. The administration immediately reinstated sanctions on Iran as a result, to which Iran responded by reneging on JCPOA obligations and exceeding uranium stockpile limits and developing enrichment centrifuges (Robinson 2021). In 2019, attacks on ships in the Strait of Hormuz were attributed to Iran, although Iran denied involvement. In response, President Trump deployed additional troops to the Middle East (CFR 2020) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps then shot down a US surveillance drone.

In 2020, the US neutralized General Soleimani – a powerful player in Iran – via airstrike (ibid.). Iran subsequently attacked US bases in Iraq and destroyed a Ukrainian passenger plane – mistaking it for American forces. America then called for more sanctions and unilaterally imposed them (ibid.). Retrospectively, the US has tried a diversified selection of carrots and sticks to get Iran to cooperate across its administrations, from coalition treaties and sanctions to actual force. Post-JCPOA Iran is now so aggressive that it blatantly refuses to behave as a modern state. Despite sanctions, Iran continues to launch missiles, develop nuclear capabilities, and support terrorism. 

The international community has and continues to suffer from Iran’s behaviour. The question today is whether the US and the international community’s approach should be weaker or stronger. Leniency towards an aggressive Iran seems tantamount to pusillanimity. If Iran’s aggression is so beyond the pale, increased displays of counter-strength will create an even worse conflict. Amidst options, two facts remain: Biden’s administration must be clear now about going forward (given America’s central role in the conflict and its international commitments) and Biden has been unclear about what he will do in a time where clarity is key.

Biden and Iran

Biden’s executive orders now reverse several of Trump’s policies (Federal Register 2021), coupled with a potential return to JCPOA. While Biden signals revisiting the JCPOA, the US cannot lift sanctions to get Iran back to the table if Iran does not first reverse its nuclear moves. The Ayatollah has said Biden must lift all sanctions before Iran will recommit to the JCPOA (Guardian staff and agencies 2021). Deadlock between the US and Iran thus continues.

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Houthis wage war in Yemen and Iranian proxies launch rockets at US bases in Iraq (Ibbetson 2021). Iranian actions in the region test America and Biden must react with commitments to the international community in mind. US capitulation might incentivise Iran to reverse nuclear moves and negotiate, but Iran cannot be trusted given their past JCPOA behaviour and role in funding terrorism. Biden could maintain Trump’s approach, but it has not yet dissuaded Iran. The other option is to go further than Trump.

Biden’s Option: Heavier Sanctions and Israel

Trump’s strong sanctions campaign targeted Iran’s industry and banks (US Treasury 2018). Despite sanctions, Iran still funds terrorism, returning us to the central problem – not least of which being the plight of Iranian citizens. Biden’s sanction strategy must adapt to Iranian government’s insensitiveness towards economic consequences that harms its citizens. If Iran remains disincentivised by current sanctions and still be treated as a threat, the remaining option is to apply heavier sanctions. Due to resistance to this from some US allies, Biden may be reluctant. However, Israel could be an effective partner.

While America desires Middle Eastern states to talk about restoring the JCPOA, Israel will not entertain such talks. In Israel’s view, only harsher sanctions and the threat of military action will make Iran negotiate (Williams 2021). If the US re-tools for heavier sanctions, they may capture an Israeli partner and potentially a Middle East bloc. However, a month passed before Biden called Prime Minister Netanyahu and any notion of him going further than Trump has not been present so far.

If getting Iran to recommit to the JCPOA means lifting sanctions and disregarding these concerns, the price is too high. A nuclear Iran would be disastrous but removing sanctions on Iran would give them more money to fund terrorism. Worse yet, lifting sanctions risks normalising the regime’s actions as acceptable if they do not develop nuclear weapons. If this security scenario comes to pass, society can expect a template for future aggressive and ambitious nuclear regimes.

Iran’s hostility remains key for Biden’s considerations and is something to be made clear while further restricting Iran’s access to funds. He must maintain and develop sanctions on Iran. If Iran refuses to play by the rules of the global community, it cannot be allowed to act and trade freely. A civil Iran which conforms to normal security behaviour is key to a safer world, a world which we need after society escapes the siege of COVID.

Featured image credit: “The former US embassy in Tehran” by Orly Orlyson is licensed under CC BY 2.0


CFR (2020) US Relations With Iran. Council on Foreign Relations. (online) Available at [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

Fayazi, N. (2017) Iran: Is it really the leading state-sponsor of terrorism? Institute for Global Dialogue, (72), pp. 1-11.

Federal Register (2021) Joe Biden Executive Orders. Federal Register. (online) Available at: [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

GTD Codebook: Inclusion Criteria and Variables (2019), University of Maryland, pages 2-25:

Guardian staff and agencies (2021) ‘Biden will not lift sanctions to get Iran back to the negotiating table’. Guardian. (online) Available at [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

Ibbetson, R. (2021) ‘Iran tests Biden with rocket attack on US base in Iraq: Militants ‘with links to Iran’ injure several Americans and kill a foreign contractor as White House vows to ‘hold attackers responsible’. MailOnline. (online) Available at:

Newsround (2018) Iran nuclear deal: What is it and why are we talking about it? BBC. (online) Available at: [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

Robinson, K. (2021) What is the Iran Nuclear Deal? Council on Foreign Relations (online) Available at: [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

Sales, N. (2018) ‘Tehran’s International Targets: Assessing Iranian Terror Sponsorship‘ – Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Remarks by Nathan Sales – Ambassador and CT coordinator for the State Department – Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Stafford, T. (2017) Beyond Compliance: Iran and the JCPOA (Research Paper No.13). Centre for the New Middle East. The Henry Jackson Society. (London: Henry Jackson Society) (online) Available at: [Accessed February 16th, 2021].

US Treasury (2018) Re-imposition of the sanctions on Iran that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA. (online) Available at:

Williams, D. (2021) ‘Israel hints it may not engage Biden on Iran nuclear strategy’. Reuters. (online) Available at: [Accessed February 16th 2021].


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