With Joe Biden winning the US presidential elections, Washington will begin to formulate a new policy towards Iran. Tehran has called on the next US administration to return to the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in May 2018, and put in place a long list of sanctions to punish Iran over its nuclear program, ballistic missile program, and operations across the Middle East against the United States and its allies.
President-elect Joe Biden has said that the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal resulted in Iran moving closer to developing a nuclear bomb, and he wants to cooperate with Washington’s European allies in relation to his policy towards Iran. However, undoing the Trump Iran policy might be harder than Biden hopes, according to a new Axios report.
In recent days, President Trump has imposed a flood of new sanctions on Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that the United States will sanction any entity that deals with Iran. The United States has also tightened the sanctions regime in recent days to punish illicit Iranian procurement networks.
US sanctions targeting Iran’s human rights violations and ballistic missile program are expected to stay. But these sanctions do not necessarily make it difficult to revive the nuclear deal. Biden can still rescind numerous Trump executive orders that were introduced to pressure Iran. However, it is unclear how many executive orders targeting Iran Biden might rescind.
What is clear is that US sanctions targeting the Iranian nuclear program, many of which were imposed by Trump’s administration, will make the likelihood of resuming talks with Iran much more difficult under a Biden administration.
According to recent reports issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has resumed uranium enrichment and exceeded the permissible level agreed under the JCPOA. It is feared that higher-grade uranium will enable Iran to develop a nuclear weapon faster.
So far, Iran has not signaled whether it will slow down its enrichment program or not, thus making a difficult situation much more complicated. This will make it harder for Biden to win the approval of the US Senate to conclude a new deal with Iran. Even key Democrats in the Senate, let alone Republicans, have deep reservations about the Iranian enrichment program.
Most members of the US Congress agree that US sanctions during the Trump era have choked Iran economically. The Biden administration reversing this achievement, without curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, will be a tough sell.
The US State Department Special Envoy for Iran, Elliot Abrams, who went on a recent whirlwind trip to the Middle East to discuss Iran, has said that Washington will aim to talk to Iran regardless of who is the next US president.
But to reach out to Iran, the United States is expected to take a few positive steps to improve ties. Iran says it wants the new US government to uphold its commitments under the JCPOA and return to the agreement.
If the United States returns to the nuclear deal, it might decide to lift some of the tight sanctions imposed on Iran during the Trump era. Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton believes a Biden administration can quickly remove these sanctions.
Biden has said that he intends to adopt a smarter way to be tough on Iran, although he has been warned by several world leaders not to return to the nuclear deal without making changes to it. These changes should address Iran’s ballistic missile program, in addition to its nuclear enrichment program, and belligerent behavior in the region involving its interventions in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries.
Despite the obstacles, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is hopeful about the likelihood of talks resuming with Washington. He says if conditions are ripe to lift sanctions, Tehran will use the opportunity to talk to Washington. Also, Rouhani has emphasized that no one, referring to Iran’s “hardliners”, has the right to threaten this opportunity.
Iran’s “hardliners” are keen to prevent Rouhani succeeding in any future talks with Washington. Not wanting Rouhani to succeed is understandable, considering the ongoing hardliner attempts to undermine the Rouhani government. In addition, Rouhani, only has a few more months left in office before Iran elects a new president in 2021.
Others in Iran are also pessimistic about the likelihood of talks. Many have warned that Rouhani should expect hard days ahead if Biden seeks to revive transatlantic relations and ends up imposing more collective pressure on Iran with help from Washington’s European allies.
If this happens, Biden could be even more successful than Trump in building a global alliance against Iran. But this could also turn out to be a good reason for Tehran to compromise with a Biden administration, to prevent such a scenario from taking shape against Iran. After all, Iran desperately needs support from the Europeans to open up trade channels and keep the JCPOA alive.
The prospect of a stronger global alliance forming against Iran could prompt the emergence of more moderate voices in Tehran favoring fresh talks with Washington, even among the “hardliner” factions. Kayhan’s editor Hussein Shariatmadari has said that Iran should set conditions before resuming talks. These include the United States unfreezing Iran’s assets abroad and paying compensation to Iran for the financial loss it has suffered since Trump’s administration withdrew from the JCPOA.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that he remains open to any option that could lead to sanctions being lifted on Iran, while also insisting that Iran’s policies will not alter with a change in the White House.
Iran is clearly keeping its options open as it watches the curtain fall on the Trump era and the transition to a Biden administration. While it might not be possible for Biden to reverse everything Trump did in relation to Iran, Tehran seems to think that it is possible to start talks with Washington. The ball is firmly in the US court and the Biden administration will need to decide whether to resume talks or not, and whether there will be preconditions or not.