The Geopolitical Cost of Biden Returning to the Iranian Nuclear Deal

ByMahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem

The Biden administration has expressed its willingness to return to the nuclear deal with Iran and resume negotiations, according to a leaked report regarding  a European initiative in mid-February 2021. However, the complexities of Washington returning to the nuclear deal represent serious challenges to it, particularly if a move is miscalculated as this will endanger the United States’ geopolitical alignments which have cemented its hegemonic role in the Middle East.  Any miscalculation will also impact  its historic relationship with its traditional allies and pave the way for  other  global powers like China and Russia to rise and compete for influence more aggressively in the region, hence endangering US interests and national security.  Some believe the impact of the Iranian nuclear file is rather insignificant, however,   in light of  regional and international interactions, it actually plays a critical role.  Any step taken in this file will result in significant ramifications. If we speculate  that the Biden administration will respond  to Iran’s nuclear blackmailing and  return  to the nuclear deal (P5+1)  to control Iran’s nuclear program — which is viewed as a top priority to curb nuclear weapons proliferation  under  UN treaties and  prevent a country, which Washington views as a “rogue” state from possessing  non-conventional weapons —  Iran will be able to rise as a power that will be  difficult to control or contain.  Then, the Biden administration will not be able to forge a comprehensive strategy to control Iran’s behavior nor contain it as the Obama administration was hoping for.  

Even if this scenario plays out,  Iran’s ambitions will not stop to ensure  its independence and capability  to counter  US and Western hegemony and implement its expansionist plans.  Hence, Iran will continue to develop its nuclear program, believing that nuclear weapons will safeguard the “Islamic Republic,” a top priority for the Iranian political leadership. The Iranian government has long boasted about its  fatwa which prohibits the development of  nuclear weapons. However, this fatwa is in line with taqiya, a  Shiite principle of denial to hide true goals and objectives.

A return to the old nuclear deal will enhance Iran’s nuclear expertise and ability to alter the balance of power equation in the region.  Iran has been working to develop its nuclear technical abilities and knowledge, especially in uranium enrichment and to  lower the nuclear breakout time.  This has been a source of concern for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the nuclear states involved in controlling Iran’s nuclear program.  They have been preoccupied with  Iran’s technological developments for a long period of time, which will enable Iran to safeguard its political system and lead it to be more radical in its behavior.  Further, these technological developments  will provide Iran with significant  deterrence capabilities against its rivals and strengthen its pursuit of hostile regional policies, including those related to curbing US influence in the region.     

Needless to say, reviving  the nuclear deal will also offer Iran  tremendous economic incentives.   According to leaked reports, the Europeans managed in mid-February 2021 to reach an agreement between Iran and the Biden administration to resume nuclear negotiations  in exchange  for unfreezing $15 billion of Iranian assets held in South Korea and Iraq. However, negotiations were hindered because Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did not support this European initiative; he wants all sanctions on Iran to be lifted prior to restarting negotiations.  His position is a direct  result of Washington’s policy of inaction and the compromises it is willing to make.    

History informs us that Washington’s  policy of inaction and Iran receiving a significant windfall whether from lifting sanctions on its exports or from unfreezing its assets will be exploited by the Iranian leadership to achieve  three main objectives. First, the Iranian ruling system led by Iran’s supreme leader will strengthen its control over Iranian society.  Second, Iran will  finance  its ballistic missile program, which is strategically significant and plays a vital role in light of the current regional military balance.  Third, Iran will be able to pursue further hostile policies and continue its interventions in the region, and push for US forces to withdraw from the region.

We have witnessed how the Iranians managed to manipulate regional realities in their favor,  and how they exploited  the power vacuum in the aftermath of  the Arab protests, resulting in Iran imposing a  new reality on the region.   The  nature of conflicts changed, with  sectarianism and ethnic strife characterizing most conflicts in the region.  Further, the region has seen an increase in violence and terrorism, with militias and radical groups turning into  vital actors,  posing risks to international maritime navigation. This has resulted  in the United States experiencing significant losses, as a result, it has been hesitant to withdraw its troops from the region. Even if the United States moves to withdraw its forces, it will be intent on leaving some troops behind.  Iran’s anti-US foreign policy has been based on ejecting US troops from the region.    

 The countries in the region explicitly reject Biden’s policies towards Iran which grant   it  legitimacy; hence enhancing its ability to gain  future nuclear expertise. These countries will not stand idle, while  Iran transforms itself into a recognized international nuclear power with the passage of time — as was the case during the negotiations resulting in the 2015  nuclear deal. Probably, some regional countries will automatically seek to develop a  nuclear balance in the region, so that the balance of power equation in the region does not tilt against them. The Gulf states will be foremost among these countries. The region will witness an unexpected nuclear arms race, which will be most likely without US participation, probably with the participation of US rivals. It will be a phase of restructuring the region’s geopolitics – for the first time in decades. 

Amid these expected geopolitical changes, every country will seek to protect its interests and influence. While the Biden administration is working to restructure its international alliances to maintain its pivotal role in the international order, it will face several challenges from the Middle East countries. Some historic US allies might attempt to leave their partnership with Washington or at least diversify their partnerships by forming alliances with other global powers.  Some of them will probably resist US regional policies more strongly  than what we  witnessed during the Obama term. Perhaps new  regional alliances will be formed.  

Some regional countries will probably seek to forge regional and international alliances to reorganize the entire regional geopolitical scene.  For example, Israel is working to change the course of conflicts in the region, following its normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain and has come into direct confrontation with Iran in the Arabian Gulf. The long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict has declined and the regional conflict against Iran has escalated. China and Russia are waiting for the opportunity to tilt the geopolitical developments in their favor. In particular, China aims to create a foundation for economic cooperation with influential regional countries — as part of its plan to entrench its economic and strategic position in the international arena — to curb US hegemony, especially after Biden has stated his intention to form alliances in South East Asia to counter  China’s danger. Iran’s intention to use the nuclear deal and its relationship with China, and the latter’s  competition with the United States was apparent in China’s recent attempts  to safeguard the nuclear deal and “defend the legitimate interests of Sino-Iran relations,” the Chinese Commerce Ministry said on March 25, 2021.    China’s moves towards the region were evident when it signed the strategic partnership with Iran on March 27, 2021 in Tehran; a move which mainly  targets the United States. 

According to China’s policies and its well-known motivation  to secure  its vital interests,   Beijing will reach the region  through  forming economic and commercial partnerships with countries other than Iran, including  the Gulf states.  These Chinese moves are a direct result of Washington’s policy of inaction towards Iran and its inability to protect its allies as well as its recent hesitation in making a decisive move towards returning  to the nuclear deal.   

Similarly, Russia is prepared to play a larger role in the Middle East, going beyond  its  existence in Syria  to counter NATO in its traditional spheres of influence, especially in light of the Biden administration potentially forming an alliance  with the Europeans. The Russian position on the nuclear deal and its relationship with Iran are in line with its geopolitical considerations and its aim to gain more bargaining chips to confront US pressures.    Further, Russia strengthened its partnership with Turkey to the extent that Moscow delivered its S-400 air defense system to Ankara. This indicates that US and European influence has been negatively impacted in the region.  

Without a doubt, the United States returning  to the nuclear deal involves  risks, especially if Washington does not take into consideration  the current changes taking place at the regional and international levels.  Even if the United States makes further compromises and offers more incentives to restructure its relationship with Iran or control its interactions, it is a far-fetched goal. According to Iran, the United states is not to be trusted. Iran’s hatred towards the United States has been deeply rooted for decades and is fueled by Iran’s national identity.  This hatred is represented in the current political system. Thus, the United States cannot achieve any economic or cultural penetration in Iran as long as this political system exists.  Russia and China are Iran’s best friends. Iran has provided these two countries with an opportunity within the regional geopolitical scene to compete with other global powers. It seems that these two countries, which face US challenges, are motivated to thwart the US sanctions regime, including the sanctions imposed on Iran. 

In a nutshell, though the Iranian nuclear deal is  marginal in  US foreign policy and the Middle East has lost some of its significance in international politics due to the decline in the importance of oil,  the Iranian file is intertwined with other strategic files, which the Biden administration views as posing  a prominent challenge to its status.  The Iranian file poses challenges to the Biden administration in three respects. First, it influences the United States’ relationship with its competitors in the international arena, particularly with China and Russia. Both countries  are keen to challenge  US policies towards Iran. Second, it challenges the United States’ relationship with its European allies, which aim to forge more  balanced policies towards the region. Third,  the Iran file impacts  US influence in the Middle Eastern subsystems, which are concerned about losing US protection and are beginning  to look for alternatives. Thus, major regional and international developments are likely to mean that any return  to the nuclear deal will be fruitless for the United States either in the short or long run. Thus, Biden better not rush to return  to the nuclear deal and he might be better off  finding a more comprehensive solution and  forging an international consensus in coordination with Washington’s European allies. In addition, Biden should seek cooperation with regional allies to conclude an agreement that  upholds the United States’ position in the region,  if it is eager to keep it, and  evade any geopolitical developments that are not in its favor.     

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

Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Managing Editor of JIS