While Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif have expressed guarded optimism with the change of administration in the US, Trump upping the ante against Iran has complicated Biden’s job.
One of the most important challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden, once he takes over in January, is likely to be the US Iran nuclear deal issue. After the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, Iran-US ties have rapidly gone downhill. However, Biden could successfully reduce tensions with Tehran by getting back on board the (JCPOA)/Iran Deal.
Biden had in fact indicated during his election campaign, that he was willing to rejoin the JCPOA/ Iran nuclear agreement. In an article written during the course of the campaign he had indicated that if Iran returned to comply with their end of the deal, Washington would rejoin the agreement so as to pave the way for feasible negotiations.
Watch: What President-elect Joe Biden’s Iran Policy could look like
Quid pro quo amidst mutual suspicions
In a recent interview to The New York Times, Biden has expressed concerns regarding Iran’s growing nuclear program. He fears that it may push other countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, to acquire nuclear weapons as well. To address this issue, Biden has emphasized the need to work not just with ‘allies and partners’ of the US, but even Russia and China, as stated in another interview, this time to CNN.
Iran on the other hand, is categorical in wanting the US to re-enter the deal unconditionally. Additionally, they expect the US to start by removing sanctions imposed on Iran, which have dealt a body blow to the country’s economy. In 2020 Iran’s Rial lost 50% of its value against the US Dollar. In a video address to the Roma Med Conference, on Thursday, 3 December, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif underlined the need for the US to withdraw economic sanctions. He said, “The United States has commitments. It is not in a position to set conditions.”
Earlier in November, in an interview Zarif had said, ‘…. Biden can lift all sanctions with three executive orders.’ Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has in fact been demanding compensation for the effects of the economic sanctions on Iran.
Pressure from Hardliners in a Bruised Iranian Economy
While Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif have expressed guarded optimism with the change of administration in the US, the Foreign Minister’s remarks reflect the increasing domestic pressure on the government, which is facing serious economic challenges as a consequence of US economic sanctions. (Zarif estimates that sanctions have caused a loss of an estimated 250 Billion USD to Iran’s economy).
Significantly on December 2, Iran’s watchdog council approved a law which states, that if sanctions are not eased within a period of two months, Iran will not allow UN inspection of its nuclear sites. Supported by hardliners, the bill also sets Iran on the path to producing 20% uranium beyond the limit set under the 2015 deal. Javad Zarif did hint however, that this legislation was not ‘irreversible’, implying that if the US removed existing sanctions, it would become irrelevant.You will find more infographics at Statista
US unconditional entry to the JCPOA
The increasing domestic pressure on Iran from hardliners, as well as the fact, that Iran goes to polls in June 2021, gives both Biden and Rouhani limited time to come to a settlement. Under these circumstances, many commentators argue, that the US should re-enter the JCPOA without imposing any conditions thereby preventing Iran from further expanding its nuclear program. According to estimates of the International Institute of Finance (IIF), if the US were to remove sanctions by the end of 2021, Iran could swiftly get back on a healthy growth trajectory — 6.9% in 2022 and 6% in 2023.
By joining the JCPOA unconditionally and removing some sanctions on Iran, Biden would be providing much needed economic relief as well as political space to the Rouhani Administration thus easing out the recent US Iran nuclear deal tension. This may place Biden in a better position to get Iran to comply with its nuclear obligations. Zarif’s recent reference to the Iran’s domestic legislation as not being ‘irreversible’ is a clear hint in that direction. Eventually, such a conciliatory policy would help in building some amount of trust between the two countries – a trust that is sorely lacking in US-Iran ties at present.
The Burden of Trump’s Iran policy
However, Biden’s job has been complicated by the fact that the Donald Trump Administration is upping the ante against Iranians. Trump has given a go ahead to his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to build pressure on Iran. Even before his final visit to the Middle East, Pompeo unequivocally asserted that in the remaining period in office, the approach towards Tehran would not change, Iran being the main threat in the Middle East. This pressure campaign includes the imposition of sanctions to exact more economic costs from Iran.
It is also believed that Saudi Arabia and Israel, US allies in the middle east, are attempting to push the envelope vis-à-vis Iran, and that this could escalate tensions in the region. The recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on November 27, 2020 threatened to do just that. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif reacted aggressively to the killing, the most shrill response came predictably from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although Iranian officials clearly point to an Israeli hand, Tehran has stated that it will carry out an investigation before reacting in anyway. However, in a relatively tempered response, the Iranian government spokesman said: ‘The intelligence ministry has identified individuals related [to the assassination] and all dimensions are being scrutinized and when everything is certain, the reciprocal reaction will be planned’.
Iran is not off the mark, as serving and former US officials detect clear Israeli involvement in the assassination of the nuclear scientist. Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, in an official tweet said: The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede diplomacy.”
A Complicated Job
While calming down tempers with Iran has become tougher with the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the measured response of Iranian moderates and even the Rouhani Administration (apart from the usual posturing which is unavoidable), gives reason for hope.
Biden’s pragmatism and his experienced foreign policy team, is unlikely to view foreign policy issues from a simplistic zero-sum prism, and this is also cause for optimism.
From the statements emanating from Tehran it seems that the country’s economic situation is the main focus of the government. And given some with some reprieve with the removal of sanctions, Iran would be in a better position to address US concerns. Apart from Biden’s intentions and announcements, it also needs to be seen how the next few months under the Trump Administration pan out and whether Israel and it’s allies in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) further up the ante vis-à-vis Iran.