U.S. President Joe Biden faces a number of challenges at home and abroad. In the foreign policy arena, relations with China and Russia pose the most intractable problems, as does the estrangement of key European allies who former U.S. President Donald Trump alienated by his isolationist rhetoric and gratuitous insults.
However, the most pressing issue facing the Biden administration is America’s relations with Iran given the concern that the present scenario may upend Washington’s non-proliferation strategy and increase tensions in the energy-rich Gulf region. Several of Mr. Biden’s top appointees in the foreign policy and security arenas were involved in the negotiations with Iran that led to the nuclear deal of 2015. They include Wendy Sherman, the original deal’s primary negotiator, who has been nominated Deputy Secretary of State, and William Burns, who was involved in the early stages of forging the Iran nuclear deal, as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Editorial | Provocation trap: On Iran-American relations
Trump action, Iran reaction
In May 2018, Mr. Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — reached by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union with Iran — and re-imposed sanctions, especially on shipment of Iranian oil, to put ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran to force it to accept America’s maximalist demands that went far beyond the agreement. The Trump administration argued that the 15-year time limit on Iran’s nuclear programme was insufficient and that Tehran must renounce in perpetuity its right to enrich uranium. Washington also demanded that a moratorium be imposed on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and that Tehran withdraws its support to regional allies and proxies opposed to U.S. policies.
After waiting a year for the European signatories of the JCPOA to persuade Washington to return to the agreement, Iran decided in 2019 to breach the limit for uranium enrichment imposed by the JCPOA. It also began increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond the amount permitted under the agreement. In a confidential document, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated that as of November 2, 2020, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had reached more than 2,442 kilograms, eight times the limit permitted by the JCPOA.
These developments indicated that Mr. Trump’s policy of exerting maximum pressure had produced the exact opposite result, bringing Iran closer to weaponisation. This outcome has generated additional pressure on the Biden administration to reverse course and bring Tehran into compliance with the JCPOA by renewing America’s commitment to the agreement and lifting sanctions.
Biden strategy, complexities
Mr. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, in her very first press conference, clearly stated that the new administration intends to constrain Iran through diplomacy, not sanctions, and reaffirmed Mr. Biden’s position that he would be willing to return to the JCPOA if Tehran does the same. On its part, the Iranian regime has signalled that it is willing to honour the agreement and reverse the steps undertaken recently if the U.S. withdraws all sanctions imposed on Tehran by the Trump administration. Hours before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated Iran’s readiness to return to the JCPOA, but went on to say: “We are not in a hurry…If they lift the sanctions and comply with their obligations, we will also fulfil our obligations.”
However, a return to the JCPOA is not as simple as it sounds, as there is wide divergence between Washington’s expectations and those harboured by Tehran. The U.S. sees a return to the JCPOA as the first step towards curbing Iran’s missile programme as well as its regional ambitions that clash with those of the U.S. and its allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Comment | No leverage for Biden on Iran
On the other hand, Iran considers the JCPOA as a stand-alone agreement covering only Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr. Zarif told journalists on the day of Mr. Biden’s inauguration that subjects such as Iran’s missile programme and its regional policy were extraneous issues and should not be linked to the nuclear deal.
Furthermore, opinions in both Washington and Tehran have hardened over the past two years. The consensus in the U.S. has shifted to a much more uncompromising position because of Iran’s refusal to change the course of its West Asian policy and its deleterious consequences for U.S. interests. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has trained proxy militias that have played a major role in helping the Assad regime in Syria to turn the tide of war against U.S.-supported opposition forces. Tehran continues to finance and arm the fiercely anti-Israeli Lebanese Hezbollah and is the principal supporter of the Houthis in Yemen who have not only fought Saudi Arabia to a standstill but also attacked major Saudi oil facilities with Iranian-supplied drones and missiles. It also continues to train and arm Shia militias in Iraq and to checkmate American policies in that country.
Boost to hardliners
At the same time, the U.S. decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA has played into the hands of the Iranian hardliners and discredited those such as Mr. Zarif and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani who had argued in favour of the JCPOA, and by implication improved relations with the U.S. The Rouhani government signed the JCPOA in 2015 with the reluctant endorsement of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has become far more sceptical now after the unilateral re-imposition of stringent sanctions by the Trump administration. This has reinforced his belief that America’s principal goal is regime change in Tehran.
Moreover, Mr. Rouhani is a lame duck President. Under Iranian laws he cannot run again when presidential elections are held in June 2021 because he has already served two terms. The recent parliamentary elections have resulted in the domination of the legislature by the hardline conservative faction known as the ‘principlists’. It is almost certain that the next President will belong to the same grouping unless an agreement is reached with the U.S. about lifting economic sanctions and returning to JCPOA, thus vindicating Mr. Rouhani’s moderate position. A new radical Iranian dispensation is unlikely to accept a mere return to the original JCPOA and will insist on a foolproof clause that will preclude a repetition of the U.S.’s unilateral withdrawal.
Even if the Biden and Rouhani administrations come to an understanding about returning to the JCPOA, the hardliners who dominate the Iranian Parliament are likely to insist that the renewed agreement must include a clause that would preclude a signatory from unilaterally abandoning the JCPOA. This was foreshadowed in the legislation passed by the Iranian Parliament in November and approved by Iran’s Guardian Council watchdog body in December 2020 that requires the government to boost uranium enrichment and limit United Nations inspections if sanctions are not removed by February 2021.
Within the U.S.
One can also expect a great deal of opposition in the U.S. Congress, particularly in the delicately balanced Senate, to a return to the JCPOA without the imposition of some restraint on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and perceptible indication of a change in its adversarial policy in West Asia. The clearly expressed opposition of America’s leading regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who consider Iran to be their principal antagonist, will add to the constraints on the Biden administration about re-engaging with Iran on the nuclear issue and removing sanctions imposed in 2018.
It is decision time for the Biden administration. Unless it is able to overcome the multiple hurdles in its path and reach an agreement with Iran in the next couple of months, it could lead to the installation of a more hardline administration in Tehran in June, thus ensuring that U.S.-Iran relations will be mired in hostility well into the future and will continue contributing hugely to instability in West Asia.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University
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