If Joe Biden wants to bring Iran back in from the cold, he had better move fast. There is a generally held belief that while an ebullient Biden will want to revert most of the executive orders which Trump initiated in his first weeks in office, making any headway with Iran is going to be very difficult for a number of reasons which Biden can’t be held accountable for, but which he needs to understand nonetheless.
Bluntly speaking, it is not correct to say that Biden will just take off where Obama left off. Iran today is simply not the Iran of 2015, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”) was signed by Iran, the US, and a number of EU member states (as well as the EU itself), along with Russia and China. Iran has become “hardened” politically and the Rouhani leadership, believed to be a stalwart champion of modernity designed to place Tehran on a more even keel against the hardliners, will almost certainly be replaced next June by a hardcore candidate.
The Iranians want compensation for their economy being destroyed and a bold gesture from the US.
And so time is not on Biden’s side if he is to go ahead with his “smart pressure.” But is it really pressure that he needs or stellar diplomacy? The Iranians want compensation for their economy being destroyed and a bold gesture from the US. In short, money aside, they would like what Biden appears not able to deliver on his first days or weeks in office: unequivocal annulment of the sanctions and a return to the JCPOA for the US.
The reason why this will be so hard for Biden to do, is because he has already signaled that he wants a gesture from them first in the form of rolling back Tehran’s enrichment program of Uranium. The program started after months of empty promises from the EU following Trump’s move in 2016 to pull out of the Iran deal altogether. It’s unlikely that Iran will do this and so before Biden even takes office, it appears that there will be a stalemate between his administration and Tehran.
The timing is rotten as well. If a compromise to this stalemate is to be reached – like the US turning a blind eye to oil sanctions – then it might be possible for Iran to take a more affable approach to talking to the Americans about winding down their enrichment program, which, at the time of going to press, was reported as being larger than they would like to let on. Twelve times more, in fact, than what was agreed on by the 2015 accord, with a parliament in Tehran already backing moves to increase it even further.
The real problem is that Iran will possibly see Biden as weak.
The real problem is that Iran will possibly see Biden as weak, and the argument will be that there is so much to gain by staying away from the negotiating table and disrespecting the sanctions by selling oil to a black market – which will swell exponentially anyway – that there is little if anything to gain by going back to the old deal.
Crucial to this is how the EU will react to Iran now demanding that it flaunts Trump’s sanctions. If Biden allows Iran to bypass them, then not only does the 46th president have even less leverage, but the worst situation of all is the obvious outcome, which is that Iran grows richer, stronger, and closer than ever to getting the bomb – simply because there isn’t the political will around the world to keep the sanctions alive. Biden will need support from the EU here although it’s unclear where Brussels will go on this.
What is clearer is that Iran is banking on having its cake and eating it. A tougher leader as president in June will no doubt argue that it can have its own nuclear energy/weapons program and still sell its oil around the world, and that only the US can make right with Tehran by paying a huge financial package in compensation which is unlikely to be acceptable to Biden.
Biden’s experts will probably advise him not to give away anything in the five months leading up to the Iranian elections – as he could be supporting hardliners with their new strategy, which would make him look foolish. What we are looking at, in many ways, is not the “Alice in Wonderland” scenario of Biden bringing back Iran out of the cold and creating peace in the Middle East but in most likelihood the Iranians firming up against his administration and creating real jitters in the region.
Biden’s experts will probably advise him not to give away anything in the five months leading up to the Iranian elections – as he could be supporting hardliners.
No longer on best friend terms with the new presidency, Saudi Arabia will have real problems with this; facing a standoff over Yemen and coming under fire about its own human rights, it will feel isolated and vulnerable. The UAE on the other hand, which played a much smarter move with Biden – signing up to the “normalization” deal with Israel and updating its own human rights score sheet – will step in as the key player to handle Iran.
It is how Abu Dhabi and Brussels work that will determine whether Biden can make any progress in allowing Iran to become a pariah state. In so many ways, although Trump created the crisis entirely himself, the Biden administration is looking increasingly like being the new antagonist of Iran. And so, ironically, next year will be a big test for Biden as all the elements point towards him being an even bigger enemy of Iran than Trump ever was.
Perhaps this explains the somewhat banal attitude in the last few weeks of Assad supporters in the Middle East who have shown how they much prefer Trump on so many levels. They see that despite Biden being more pragmatic towards Iran, the Israel-loving new US president is also very much gun-ho and supports intervention-based strategies over long drawn out political ones.
One marked change we should expect to appease the Israelis about any US attempts to work more closely with Iran, is that Israel will be given more scope to bomb Syria and let off the leash that Trump had previously tightened. Indeed, Israeli airstrikes always place Russia in an awkward position, making Russian made S-400s look ineffective and throwing a spotlight over the farce of Israel-Russia relations (which are much cozier than most western analysts would let you believe). This is relevant as it will create more tension in the region, the only place where Biden can be seen as hitting Russia, without lifting a finger.
It’s all about the speed that Biden moves and his own diplomatic skills, if he is serious about defusing what is looking like a new threat to peace in the Middle East.
And so it’s really all about the speed that Biden moves and his own diplomatic skills, if he is serious about defusing what is already looking like a new threat to peace in the Middle East. Don’t believe those opinion pieces which are written by DC Middle East experts who pander to Biden’s camp and present him as the silver bullet to the Iran problem.
In many ways, it’s looking like history has already written these chapters. Biden might have a long wait to see if he is able, like Churchill once quipped, to write his own history books since history is written by the winners. So far we have only seen Biden as a cautious friend to Iran during better times under Obama.
Perhaps it would be wiser for him and his legacy to assume those days are over as we should not assume there is any obvious solution to fixing Iran. Trump’s wrecking ball left too much in tatters, destroyed too much, and hasn’t left much to sift through. It may well be, ironically, Trump’s own sanctions which end up being the very tool Biden holds on to when applying his so-called “smart pressure” on Tehran.