BRUSSELS – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to act quickly to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran while Iran also comes back to terms. But that vow is easier said than done.
While Mr Biden’s promise delighted the other signatories of the deal, who were angry that President Trump had withdrawn two years ago, it may be impossible to go back to what it was, what was done by both the Iranian and the American Politics gets complicated.
Even as a lame duck, President Trump is quick to tighten American sanctions against Iran and sell advanced weapons to his regional enemies. This policy would be difficult to reverse for a new president.
Last week he asked his advisers about options for a military strike against Iran, but it appears that it was advised against. His aides argued that an attack could quickly lead to a major war.
Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani faces stiff Conservative opposition in the June 2021 election, is expected to charge a heavy price for a return to the deal, including the immediate lifting of the Trump administration’s sanctions and compensation in Billions for you.
These are demands that Mr Biden most likely will not comply with – especially given the strong opposition in Congress.
Iran has some leverage. When Mr Trump took office, Iran had approximately 102 kilograms of enriched uranium, the production of which was limited by the 2015 agreement. After the United States withdrew, Iran declared it was no longer bound by the agreement and resumed higher-level uranium enrichment.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that Iran now has over 2,440 kilograms, which is more than eight times the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal. The “breakout” time for Iran to potentially manufacture a nuclear weapon – an ambition it denies – is now considerably less than a year.
During the campaign, Mr Biden called Mr Trump’s decision to abandon the deal “ruthless” and said it ultimately isolated the United States, not Iran.
“I will provide Tehran with a credible path back to diplomacy,” wrote Biden in a September published for CNN. “If Iran returns to strict adherence to the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the deal as a starting point for follow-up negotiations.”
A week ago, after Mr Biden’s victory, Mr Rouhani welcomed the initiative, calling it “an opportunity” for the United States to “make up for its past mistakes and get back on the road to honoring international commitments”.
The choice of the word “compensate” was no accident, said Robert Einhorn, a nuclear arms control negotiator who is now with the Brookings Institution. Iran wants Washington to pay for the billions of dollars in economic losses it suffered when Mr Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran deal in 2018 and reinstated the sanctions it lifted.
Since then, Mr. Trump has imposed further sanctions. This maximum pressure campaign, as the government has called it, devastated the Iranian economy, but it failed to push Iran back to the negotiating table or limit its engagement in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon.
The government is also trying to further curtail Iran’s support for proxy militias in these countries. It sells more sophisticated weapons to the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf – countries that view Iran as an enemy and have their own regional ambitions – and is speeding up the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Some believe Mr Trump will take more kinetic action, including further sabotage and cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear or missile programs, or even military actions that would most likely support Israel, Egypt and the Gulf allies.
The transition of the president
Nov. 17, 2020, 11:35 am ET
“I don’t think the government is finished on the Iran issue,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and longstanding advocate of tough policies on Iran. “I think people will fight hard against Iran in the next three months, knowing that there could be a very different Iran policy after January.”
The Iranian negotiators know that the United States would never provide financial compensation, Einhorn said. “But they could find themselves in a difficult negotiating position, especially given the dynamism of their upcoming elections.” He suggested that Iran not only demand the lifting of nuclear sanctions, but also those for human rights abuses, ballistic missile development and support for terrorist groups, which would be politically and technically difficult for a Biden government.
Shortly before a swift re-entry into the nuclear deal, Einhorn said, the parties should work towards an interim deal in which Iran would withdraw a significant portion of its current nuclear build-up in exchange for partial sanctions easing – particularly to aid Iran’s access to some of its Oil revenue is now locked in overseas bank accounts. Iran could welcome such a transitional arrangement if it gave the economy a quick boost, especially before the elections in mid-June.
Given the complications of the American transfer of power, where security clearance and Senate affirmation requirements have already been slowed by Mr Trump’s refusal to admit defeat and cooperate with Mr Biden, top officials may not be on the scene very soon. The practical window of time between the inauguration on January 20 and June should only be two or three months, which speaks for a quickly established “return channel” between Washington and Tehran after Mr Biden took office.
Despite Mr Trump’s pressure campaign, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has kept the door open for an American return and refused to completely abandon the nuclear deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Iranians opposed to the original deal argue that the United States has proven it cannot be trusted, and Iran has refused to negotiate with Mr Trump. But Ayatollah Khamenei gave Mr. Rouhani “the green light, the political space to deliver these messages to a Biden government,” about Iran’s desire for Washington to return to the deal, Ms. Geranmayeh said.
At the same time, she noted, Mr Rouhani’s die-hard opponents will not want him “to get that victory before the June elections and they will try to disrupt that effort as Republicans will try to disrupt Bidens,” said you . Mr Biden could quickly lift a number of sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear activities, including approving further exemptions that allow Iran to sell oil. It could ease travel restrictions on Iranian citizens, increase humanitarian trade by easing banking barriers and lifting sanctions against some key officials like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the main nuclear negotiator.
But sanctions imposed under the counter-terrorism and human rights category, such as those against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, would be more difficult to lift, especially given that many Democrats support them. But Ms. Geranmayeh said Iran would insist that the United States lift the sanction against the Iranian central bank, which is accused of funding certain terrorist groups, so that they can use the global banking system again.
If the Iran deal can be re-established, Iran has said it is open to talks on other issues, particularly regional concerns in Iraq and Syria. However, Iran has so far refused to put its missile program on the table, which is already under separate sanctions from the United States and the United Nations.
Some, like Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute in Washington, believe that Mr Biden should pursue higher goals, for example by proposing normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran. “Putting the puzzle back together in US-Iranian diplomacy will be enormously difficult,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “But the last few years have shown that difficulties won’t go away if you don’t try.”
As with all major policies in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, 81, is key. He views America as a doomed country in “political, civil and moral decline”. He joined the nuclear deal because it promised significant economic benefits through the lifting of sanctions, and now appears to see his skepticism about the United States confirmed by Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the pact.
But with the change in American leadership, he once again sees an opportunity to loosen the economic straitjacket that has been imposed by renewed American sanctions.
“Despite Khamenei’s hubris, a Biden presidency offers Tehran both an opportunity and a challenge,” wrote Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. “The opportunity is a chance to improve the country’s dying economy. The challenge is that Tehran can no longer effectively use President Donald Trump as a pretext or distraction for its internal oppression, economic failure and regional aggression. “
Lara Jakes and Pranshu Verma reported from Washington.