Foreign Policy Experts Come to Vanderbilt to Discuss US-Iran Relations Under the Biden Administration


Photo by Sina Drakhshani on Unsplash

Rohan Upadhyay, Contributor

The Vanderbilt chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society (AHS) – a national organization that encourages discussions on US foreign policy – hosted an event on April 15th about United States policy towards Iran, focusing on how the US can deter Iran’s nuclear program. AHS invited Vanderbilt professor of history and political science Thomas Schwartz and Georgetown political science and AHS scholar professor Matthew Kroenig to discuss the issue. 

Here are the highlights of the conversation

Kroenig opened by arguing that President Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) – the Iran Nuclear Deal – fell short as it only had temporary measures and wasn’t strict enough. For example, Iran was allowed 6000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, albeit to a low level. Kroenig argued that letting Iran have centrifuges opens the door for it to enrich uranium to the point of making weapons. He also argued that the restrictions on Iran’s program only lasted for 10-15 years and that the US lacked a strategy for how to handle Iran afterwards. 

Kroenig expressed support for the Trump administration’s hardline stance on Iran, as it called for Iran having no centrifuges and placed economic pressure on the Iranian government to drive it to the negotiating table. Kroenig explained that, in his view, Iran had been waiting out the Trump presidency and that, had Trump won a second term, Iran could have eventually cracked and been brought to the table to negotiate a more limiting deal. 

Kroenig also argued that the Biden administration’s current approach would not be sufficient. While Biden wanted to return to the 2015 deal, Iran is now playing hardball more so than ever as it is demanding the US to remove Trump-era sanctions. Thus, Biden’s unwillingness to take a hardline stance may prove ineffective. Kroenig argued that Biden’s desire to reach a broader deal – including provisions on ballistic missiles, for example – beyond the original JCPA would likely not be realized. 

Finally, Kroenig argued that returning to the JCPA with the original 2015 timeline for Iran’s nuclear restrictions would be disadvantageous. The JCPA placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for about 10-15 years, meaning that the original agreement would end around 2025-2030. If Biden were to reenter the 2015 JCPA now, then the original expiration of the JCPA (around 2025) would only be 4 years away at least. Reentering the original JCPA now would buy the US little time to reach a new deal, in his view. 

Kroenig went on to argue that, as the US and Iran are both out of compliance with the JCPA, both sides want the other to make concessions first. This, in Kroenig’s view, creates a stalemate in which the US is not pressuring Iran to negotiate but instead waiting aimlessly for something to happen. 

At this point, the floor opened to questions, primarily from Professor Schwartz. 

Schwartz first asked about Europe’s involvement in the JCPA. He pointed out that Europe continued to follow the deal after the US violated the JCPA, and he asked Kroenig if Europe’s participation is reason enough for the US to follow such international agreements.

Kroenig argued that the support of Europe was window dressing. Because the deal centered around the US and Iran, the other major powers – China, Russia, and Europe – would likely follow whatever they agreed upon. Thus, in his view, the US should consider withdrawing from international agreements if they’re not in America’s interest, regardless of the international community’s opinion. 

Turning to Israel’s place in US-Iran relations.

Schwartz turned to Israel, asking Kroenig for his thoughts on Israel’s alleged attempt to shut down an Iranian nuclear plant. Kroenig asserted that Biden should capitalize on Iran’s current inability to expand nuclear capabilities by pushing Iran to the negotiating table; Kroenig claimed, however, that the Biden administration did not view Israel’s attack this way and thus was missing an opportunity. 

Schwartz later asked whether Israel could or would unilaterally destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Kroenig explained that Israel lacked such capabilities. The US, for example, has bombs called Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs), also known as “bunker busters,” that can drill into and destroy Iran’s nuclear bunkers below ground. Israel, however, lacks MOPs and has less sophisticated bunker busters. Thus, Israel could not unilaterally destroy Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to using nuclear weapons itself. 

General Soleimani’s Death

Schwartz turned to America’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, asking whether this impacted US policy towards Iran. Kroenig argued that the consequences of this event were, to an extent, blown out of proportion. Contrary to the notion that the US was on the brink of war with Iran, Iran would not retaliate too aggressively, as it did not want to go to war with the US. Rather, Iran simply attacked a US base in the Middle East and did not escalate further. Kroenig thus argued that Soleimani’s death did not severely hurt relations between the two countries, and he argued that the assassination showed Iran that the US still had the capability to restrain Iran militarily. 

Verification of Iran’s compliance

At the end of the event, an audience member asked Kroenig how the US could trust Iran in any deal. Kroenig explained that, despite his criticisms of the JCPA, he supported the inspections that Iran agreed to under the JCPA. Kroenig explained that, because Iran was inspected by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be hard for Iran to cheat on the deal without the US finding out. The issue, in Kroenig’s view, was that it was unclear what the US would do if Iran was cheating. 


AHS desired to discuss the JCPA in a way that encouraged discussion over important foreign policy questions, such as the US’ responsibilities towards the international community and the means by which the US should help create stability abroad. The conversation can hopefully spark more critical considerations about US foreign policy.