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Biden and the Iran nuclear deal conundrum

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09 Nov 2020 01:11:58 GMT9
09 Nov 2020 01:11:58 GMT9

While congratulations were pouring in for US President-elect Joe Biden, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took the US elections as an occasion to mock liberal democracy and the American system. He did not seem enthusiastic about the election of Biden as president. Though one of Biden’s campaign promises has been to return to the nuclear treaty, the task may not be as easy as it seems.

To start with, former US President Barack Obama entered the Iran nuclear deal despite opposition from the Republicans. The deal was an executive order and was not ratified by Congress.

Nevertheless, Obama — who wrongly thought Hillary Clinton would easily beat Donald Trump in politics — was banking on her to keep the deal. The fact that it was not ratified by Congress allowed Trump to reverse it. The question is: Will Khamenei, who initially was skeptical of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and of US intentions, accept a deal and make concessions knowing it might be thrown out by a subsequent president? The killing of terrorist mastermind Qassem Soleimani further deepened Iran’s mistrust of the US, and its effect will likely outlive President Trump.

On the other hand, the US Senate is likely to remain under Republican control, and the Democrats’ majority in the House seems also likely to shrink. Thus, there is little chance that Biden will be able to get a resolution concerning the nuclear deal passed by a Republican-controlled Senate. Trump is blamed for unilaterally withdrawing from the deal — signed on a multilateral basis — without consulting his partners, namely the European ones. However, the tokens offered to Iran in the deal did not entice Tehran to exhibit good behavior. On the contrary, the Iranian leadership wanted to prove to its domestic audience that the US could not compel it to relinquish its core principles. The regime’s men kept on calling for “Death to America” in the Friday prayers. The concessions made on the uranium enrichment front were compensated by Iran’s increasing its malign activities in the region. The Obama rationale for the nuclear deal was that economic prosperity would overcome ideology. This was not, however, the way things played out following the signing of the deal.

Five years after the signing of the JCPOA, the US has realized that piecemeal deals do not work.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

To add to that, the US was not able to make sure that the funds released to Iran were not used to finance conflicts. It was even bluntly declared by top US officials from the Obama administration that some of the funds would go to terrorist organizations and that the US would have no control over this. At the same time, Obama accommodated Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region so as not to disturb the flow of negotiations. Obama retracted on his red lines once Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, which paved the way for Russian intervention. The White House delayed the Caesar Act from reaching Congress in order not to upset the Iranians.

To add to that, the deal was sealed behind the back of America’s Arab Gulf allies, which prompted them to adopt a more proactive regional policy to fend for themselves as they felt abandoned by their long-time ally. The US nuclear deal with Iran was supposed to bring stability to the region, but it did just the opposite and resulted in more chaos and intensified conflicts.On the other hand, Trump’s maximum-pressure policy, while refraining from direct confrontation, weakened the Iranian system — but not to the point of bringing it to its knees. Iran went back to enriching uranium and showed even greater defiance of the US. In fact, Iran has been under sanctions for 40 years and has developed a sort of resilience to sanctions. The call that Trump was expecting from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to go back to the negotiating table was never made. Iran closed the door to any talks with the US starting with snubbing the Japanese prime minister, who tried to play the role of mediator. Rouhani refused to meet with the US president during the UN General Assembly, as did Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the G7 held in France. Iran remained defiant, imposing as a precondition for any talks with the US, the latter’s return to the JCPOA.

Five years after the signing of the JCPOA, the US has realized that piecemeal deals do not work. Also, Biden would not want to look weak by returning to the deal without getting any concessions — hence the need for a grand bargain that will provide the necessary guarantees to both parties as well as to US allies in the region. Nevertheless, a Biden administration will have enough domestic challenges to keep it busy: The coronavirus (COVID-19), a deteriorating economy, and racial tension, to name a few. Also, Biden’s top priority will be to mend the relationship with America’s transatlantic partners, which was strained during Trump’s presidency. However, Biden, who is more likely to adopt a multilateral approach toward Iran and the region, will probably engage with his European allies and find a comprehensive solution to the Iranian issue. No matter how Biden chooses to proceed with the Iranian portfolio, going back to the nuclear deal will be a conundrum.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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