Iranians in Biden’s Transition Team

BySulaiman Hussain Alwadai

Joe Biden has appointed five Iranian experts from academic backgrounds in his transition team.   Iranian media agencies were quite optimistic and praised Biden’s appointments. According to Iranian media reports, these appointments will positively impact US relations, because of the sensitive roles these five individuals will play in the US administration. Despite their US nationality, these individuals were raised in Iranian immigrant families and are fully conscious of their identity and cultural background.  Over the course of history, there have been several individuals from Iranian American backgrounds who were influential in the US government.  We can forecast the potential influence and prospects of the five-selected Iranians by reviewing their roles and the impact of those Iranian Americans who held posts in the US administration in the past. Also, comprehending the current roles and academic backgrounds of the five individuals appointed to Biden’s team will provide further insight into their prospective influence and impact. Biden’s transition team is responsible for evaluating the performance of the current presidential administration which is due to leave   through scrutinizing its procedures, programs, agendas, and workflow.  This is to make sure that the new administration will be able to lay the foundations for its future performance, and to ensure the swift transfer of power without any hindrances.  

In fact, Iranian Americans, particularly those who are linked to Iranian cultural organizations, have previously influenced and participated in American decision-making to meet the goals of the Iranian government.

Therefore, Iranian foreign policy is dependent on Iranian immigrants who hold onto their cultural and ideological heritage. These factors motivate hyper nationalism within them.  However, if there are any doubts over their loyalty to the Iranian government, Tehran plays on their affiliation with Iranian culture, Persian identity, and their deep-rooted Iranian nationalism to win them over.

Over the past two decades, the role that Iran’s lobbying organizations play in promoting Iranian interests has been acknowledged. They have done this via collaborating with civil non-governmental organizations and commercial companies which have economic interests with the Iranian government. Among the most significant Iranian linked organizations that are prominent in US society and politics are the National Iranian America Council (NIAC) and Bonyad Alavi.

During Barack Obama’s presidential term, the impact of Iranian lobbyists on US foreign policy became obvious. To name a few lobbyists: Sahar Nowrouzzadeh who worked as a US national security adviser and oversaw the Iranian file, Ferial Govashiri who was a former special aide to President Obama, and Valerie Jarrett who is a US national and was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz.  According to multiple sources, Jarrett played a covert mediating role between Tehran and Washington to pave the way for nuclear negotiations.  In addition, Ramin Toloui, one of the five individuals to join Biden’s transition team, had an active role during the negotiations period leading to the signing of   the nuclear deal with Iran. This was when he served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Finance and Development.

Susan Biniaz, the most experienced figure amongst the five selected individuals, who is interested in the environment and climate change, has been entrusted with a group of experts to work on the United States  rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. Her  professional background is of great significance;  she previously served as a  deputy legal adviser at the US State Department, and as a lead climate lawyer and  a lead climate negotiator from 1989 until  early 2017. She has worked for several US administrations starting from President George Bush Senior until the end of President Obama’s second term.

 Shara (Shahrzad) Mohtadi serves on the Bloomberg Philanthropies environment team.   During President Obama’s second term, she served as an adviser for the energy and environment portfolio at the White House, in the Office of Management and Budget. Mohtadi  became part of Biden’s  transition team as a member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). This is a division of the Executive Office of the President. Aras Jizan serves as a member of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Biden’s transition team. He holds an MA in Applied Statistics from the University of California and an MA in Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.

Mehrsa Baradaran is a strong advocate of minority rights and enjoys   popular support within American cultural and democratic circles. She is one of the most consistent advocates promoting the rights of US citizens from African and non-European backgrounds. She has called for these minorities to be compensated for the deprivations they have suffered in US society and for the racial and inequality gaps to be bridged. The latter has deepened because of systematic bias in favor of the white majority. Her book titled “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” had a wide impact in US cultural circles, because of  the rising racial polarization in  US society.

Baradaran was born in Iran during the revolutionary years.  She said, her family had been a victim of the post-revolutionary government, but  they were able  to immigrate to the United States  when she was 9 years old. She specializes   in banking law. It is not surprising, therefore, that she has been appointed to Biden’s Agency Review Team for the Department of the Treasury.

Finally, the most important name out of the five Iranians is Ramin Toloui who joined the team reviewing the work of the US State Department. Unlike the other four individuals, he has experience in relation to the US sanctions imposed on Iran.  He is Professor of the Practice of International Finance and the Tad and Dianne Taube Policy Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He served as the  Assistant Secretary for International Finance at the US  Department of the Treasury from 2014 through 2017.  

During the period of his postings, one sensed his role in shaping the US government’s approach towards the Ukrainian crisis; the imposition of sanctions on Russia; and the US position on Brexit.  He was highly instrumental in the negotiations leading to the nuclear agreement with Iran. It is very likely that Ramin will take up a key position in the Biden administration after the latter’s inauguration in January. Based on his past experience in the Obama administration, Ramin is one of the individuals that Biden will count on, particularly in relation to the United States returning to the nuclear deal and reopening diplomatic channels.

The transition team is not the official US administration yet. Four out of the five individuals covered in this article have experience in the environmental sector, climate change and US domestic affairs.  Most of them have adopted liberal Western ideals. There are two questions that are on everyone’s mind:  will their influence in the long run remain within the scope of their current expertise?   Will their differences with the Iranian government make a fundamental difference in this equation? What is of significance is that prominent groups of academics with an Iranian background were the ones who contributed to a state of US openness towards Iran and led to a change in the course of US-Iran relations.  We must not overlook the fact that when we address the influence of the Iranian lobby in the United States, we frequently bring up the influence of the mentioned individuals, whether through their academic or civil society platforms, or their appointment to government bodies.

The five individuals are liberal and very often hostile towards the theocratic government in Iran. Over the course of history, the Iranian lobby in the United States has clashed with the Iranian government on many occasions at a superficial level.  Yet, they have held meetings with several Iranian governments, even with the hardline government of Ahmadinejad.  High rank lobbyists attended this meeting. Thus, we conclude by saying that the ethnic loyalty of the five individuals and their cultural and nationalistic affiliations create an intersection of interests between the Iranian government and the priorities of these individuals, which focus on preventing harm to the Iranian people or the weakening of their national affinity in the face of any force or other nationality in the region.

In a nutshell, regardless of the interests of the five selected individuals and how their experience and academic backgrounds will be utilized, their   tasks will not be limited to what they have been currently asked to undertake. They will positively impact the status of the Iranian people, culture, and government in US society.  As a result, the eventual mental image that the American people will develop towards Iran will not be limited to the Iranian people and the government in Tehran but will also include the mentioned influential Iranian Americans. In addition, the practical and academic experiences of the five selected individuals qualify them to engage in diplomatic missions or participate in foreign policymaking.

 The young generation in US society, particularly in the blue states, pays close attention to climate change. The top priorities of the five selected individuals include racial equality and narrowing the wealth gaps resulting from capitalism. The more these five individuals become known in their spheres of influence within Biden’s transition team, the likelihood increases that they will take up influential administrative positions after the inauguration ceremony on January 20.

It should be noted that Biden, as a political figure, faces a lot of criticism for adopting a similar approach to that of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He will try, in various ways, to ensure his administration’s independence, without being dependent on previously crafted policies.  Psychologically speaking, Biden as a person will play an important role in determining the individuals that he will appoint and the foreign policy positions that his administration will adopt.  Biden is likely to draw a line for himself to distinguish himself from the Obama presidency, at least during the first two years of his first term.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Sulaiman Hussain Alwadai
Sulaiman Hussain Alwadai
Researcher at the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah)