Tehran, Iran – The ramifications of Joe Biden’s election as the next President of the United States will certainly reverberate around the world – but perhaps nowhere more so than in Iran.
The hopes of many Iranians for a better future after the signing of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers in 2015 were dashed about three years later when President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the landmark deal.
Trump’s Hawk government imposed waves of irreconcilable economic sanctions that blacklisted the entire Iranian financial sector as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that resulted in, among other things, rising inflation and a lack of drugs.
Biden has promised to “change course” – but the way forward remains unclear and complicated.
For one, when the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was struck, the President-elect, who was Vice-President, stated that the US would rejoin the deal “as a starting point for Follow-up Negotiations “if Iran returns to compliance.
Iran, on the other hand, said the US must “return to law and international obligations” before any further action can be taken.
With European efforts failing to secure the economic benefits promised to Iran under the deal, the Iranian government gradually began a series of its JCPOA commitments exactly one year after the US rejected the deal in May 2018 to drive back.
Iran has announced that it will fully comply with the deal again after the US does the same.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CBS News last week that under no circumstances will Iran renegotiate the terms of the JCPOA.
“If we wanted to, we could have done it four years ago with President Trump,” he said.
Freeze by Freeze Agreement
With this in mind, Henry Rome, senior Iranian analyst at US-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, expects Iran and the US to be cautious in the first few months of a Biden presidency.
“Biden will face a number of more pressing priorities and Tehran will be cautious about negotiating and giving away leverage ahead of the June presidential election,” he told Al Jazeera.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is nearing the end of his second four-year term, will step down in early August. His replacement will be decided in an election for June 18, 2021.
A conservative majority parliament was formed in Iran in February after only about 42 percent of voters had voted in the elections. This was an unprecedented turnout in the four decades of history of the Islamic Republic.
However, Rome believes that the two countries could reach a freeze-for-freeze interim agreement in 2021, likely in the second half of the year.
He said the deal could result in Tehran stopping or withdrawing some aspects of its nuclear program, such as the development and testing of advanced centrifuges.
“In return, the US could grant Iran access to an international credit line and legally export a maximum of around 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day,” the analyst said.
Rome believes broader negotiations will likely have to wait until 2022.
The suffocation of Iranian oil exports has been a primary target of the Trump administration. Exports have shrunk by more than 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) due to US sanctions, but Iran still exports an unknown amount despite sanctions.
Data from three companies tracking tankers showed that Iranian oil exports rose sharply in September, according to Reuters news agency. However, the numbers showed a wide range between 400,000 bpd and 1.5 million bpd.
Increased efforts from Europe
Following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, the European signatories to the agreement had repeatedly urged the Trump administration to return there.
France, Germany and the UK – collectively known as E3 – also raised concerns about Iran’s increased nuclear activity.
According to Ellie Geranmayeh, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Europe will now try to lay the groundwork for Biden to re-join the JCPOA as soon as possible.
“I think we will likely see an increased diplomatic effort by the E3 governments and the EU towards Tehran to find out what processes and conditions are acceptable for the US to re-enter the deal, and indeed for Iran to do so to fully comply with the JCPOA’s nuclear commitments again, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Geranmayeh believes that a Biden government should seek to establish a formal framework with Iran ahead of the upcoming presidential election, after which major diplomatic advances may prove more difficult.
“If there is enough political will on all sides, it is technically feasible for Iran to roll back its nuclear activities to the JCPOA limits by June,” she said.
“Comprehensive sanction structure in place”
On the US side, however, things could be more complicated.
Over the past year, the Trump administration took a number of measures that would make it difficult for a potential Biden administration to revert to the nuclear deal and lift the sanctions.
This has been achieved mainly by striking Iranian individuals and organizations, some of which have already been sanctioned, with non-nuclear labels, including those related to “terrorism” and human rights.
The most recent example came on October 26th when the US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on the Iranian Petroleum Department, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company “for their financial assistance” to the Quds Force, the paramilitary arm of Iranian Islam overseas Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has also been blacklisted.
On the same day, the US special envoy to Iran, Elliott Abrams, told The National that a potential Biden administration could not lift all US sanctions against Iran if it wanted to.
“The US now has a comprehensive sanctions structure that will remain in place for a while,” he said.
ECFR’s Geranmayeh says nuclear sanctions can and should be lifted to revive the JCPOA, but a Biden administration could run into problems due to “political constraints” from Republicans keeping control of the Senate, other designations in Congress cancel.
She also said that the European governments involved in the JCPOA should try to realistically satisfy Iran’s demand for compensation by consulting with it on an economic package that could instill more confidence in the nuclear deal.
Iranian FM Zarif says Iran will under no circumstances renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal [File: Reuters]
Mohsen Shariatinia, assistant professor of international relations at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, also believes that a US return to the nuclear deal will not be easy or quick.
He said what has happened between the two countries over the past four years – a period of escalating tension that peaked at the beginning of the year when a US drone attack killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani – and only serves to serve the upcoming Iranian presidential election to complicate the problem.
“The option for the Rouhani administration will likely be to accelerate the process of US return to the nuclear deal so that sanction pressures are eased and the JCPOA remains the government’s main achievement,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sharia said the nuclear deal and its treatment by the US had learned valuable lessons for politicians in Iran from the instability and unpredictability of international relations.
“I assume that the next Iranian president, regardless of political affiliation, will be a cautious pragmatist who will neither be antagonistic nor have a romantic view of international politics,” he said.
In a CNN published in mid-September, Biden signaled that his government would also focus on Iran’s regional activities and missile program.
Geranmayeh said she did not expect Iran, especially under Rouhani, to open up to discussions on these issues.
She said Iran and the US could establish a “rest for rest” dynamic in which they consider each other’s interests in key areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“However, it is difficult to imagine that face-to-face talks between the US and Iran are going on about big business on regional issues. These need to be done in a multilateral forum and on a case-by-case basis, ”she said.