Iran and U.S. Strategy: Looking beyond the JCPOA

The Burke Chair at CSIS has released a new analysis on U.S. strategy with Iran, which shows that the U.S. must consider a range of critical issues that will not be solved by simply renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This assessment provides figures on Iran’s current conventional strike capabilities, Iran’s older unguided delivery systems, a comparison between Iran’s aging Air Force and the Arab gulf countries’ air modernization, as well an annex containing the World Bank’s economic assessment of Iran.

It highlights the critical limits to the present structure of the debate over the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear program. It also shows that Iran’s increasing ability to use its proxies and engage the U.S. in gray area warfare means that the United States must reshape its strategy to comprehensively engage Iran beyond the JCPOA.

The Biden Administration’s present focus on Iran as one of the main threats to U.S. national security is currently driven by its efforts to return to the JCPOA with Iran and to make it a fully functioning agreement.

There seems to be far less attention to what will happen after such an agreement is or is not reached; over the other developments in Iran’s politics and strategy; over the other developments in its military forces; and over its role and influence in nearby powers like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran’s potential new trade for oil in its agreement with China seems to get only marginal attention – as does China’s strategic dependence on imports of Gulf oil.

More broadly, the Biden Administration seems to be following the Trump Administration in phasing down the U.S. presence in the MENA region – especially in the Gulf – on the basis of its “defeat” of the ISIS Caliphate and its need to allocate resources to Asia.

The U.S. does seem to pursue some kind of strategic partnership with Iraq – although in a vague and half-hearted way. However, its strategy for the rest of the Gulf, the Levant, and North Africa has not clearly evolved beyond shifting away from the Trump Administration’s focus on getting more burdensharing revenues. There are words to the contrary, but – as yet – they seem to be little more than a political cloak for a lack of substantive action.

If the U.S. is to succeed in both preventing an Iranian nuclear program and helping to bring some form of stability to the Gulf and MENA region, it needs to broaden its approach to the Iranian nuclear program and focus on the overall military balance in the Gulf as well as the trade-offs Iran must make between its nuclear and missile programs.

At the same time, the U.S. must recognize that the Iranian missile threat, Iran’s influence over key neighbors like Syria and Iraq, and Iran’s capabilities for asymmetric maritime warfare in the Gulf must be considered in shaping both U.S. efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement and to reach some form of more stable military balance in the region.

This report entitled, Iran and U.S. Strategy: Looking Beyond the JCPOA, is available for download at

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy