World, Americas

Will Biden bury the hatchet with Iran?

Experts believe road to reconciliation is bumpy, with several bottlenecks

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 24.01.2021
Will Biden bury the hatchet with Iran?

TEHRAN, Iran

While Donald Trump's unceremonious exit from the White House has been welcomed in Iran, the arrival of Joe Biden as the new US president is being viewed with guarded optimism.

Biden, who served in the Barack Obama administration that inked a historic nuclear pact with Tehran in 2015, has expressed willingness to return to the deal almost three years after his predecessor exited from the agreement.

Consensus, however, is still eluding Tehran and Washington on conditions of the US’ return to the deal, and Tehran's rollback of recent nuclear acceleration in contravention to the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has, in recent weeks, spoken in a reconciliatory tone, urging the new US president to "make up for mistakes" of the previous administration.

But he has ruled out "renegotiating," calling for an "unconditional" return of the US to the deal in return for Iran's full compliance.

On Jan. 22, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a Foreign Affairs article, said the new administration in the US has a "fundamental choice to make."

Iran's top diplomat, who led negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal, said the Biden administration has to either "embrace the failed policies of the Trump administration" or "shed the failed assumptions of the past and seek to promote peace and comity in the region."

The US return to the deal and de-escalation of tensions between the two long-time adversaries, experts believe, would require Tehran to roll back some of the recent measures, and Washington to ease sanctions imposed by the Trump administration since May 2018.

Earlier this week, Tony Blinken, Biden's nominee for US secretary of state, however, dropped hints that the new administration is not in a hurry to return to the deal and ease sanctions.

The new US administration is expected to consult its allies, including Israel, before making overtures to Tehran, which makes the whole process complicated, according to experts.

Iran's presidential election in June could also temporarily stall the process, with conservatives in a strong position to replace reformists in power. Conservatives have long opposed negotiations with the US and hostilities have only intensified this year.

Revival of nuclear deal

While both sides seem interested in infusing new life into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, there are multiple hurdles.

Alireza Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geostrategic analyst with a focus on Iran-US relations, said there are a myriad of "complicated technical issues" in reviving the 2015 accord, which calls for "a right amount of political commitment from both sides" to see it through.

"The Biden camp seems intent on returning to the JCPOA but they will have to survive a lot of acrimony from hawks on both sides of the aisle," argued Ahmadi, pointing to the hurdles.

These hawks, he added, have "largely modulated their demands" on "new conditions" for the US’ return to the deal or for Biden to put the issue on the backburner until the June election.

"Most of them likely know that is essentially a poison pill. If things don't change fairly soon, the more combative dynamic will be cemented, making matters exponentially more complicated," said Ahmadi.

Sadrodin Moosavi, a political commentator and senior academic, agreed that Biden is willing to revive the deal as he has stakes in it, having served as Obama's vice president.

However, he added, there are forces both in Washington and Tehran who oppose the revival for various reasons.

"But reasonable forces in both the countries are convinced that the JCPOA should be revived," Moosavi said, citing two considerations that should be heeded.

"First, given the mess that Trump has left in the US, Washington has many things on its immediate agenda and may take some time to focus on the JCPOA," he said. "Second, the radical and conservative forces in Iran may not be interested in the immediate revival of the deal by the reformist administration of President Rouhani, for they prefer to snatch the credit of its revival to use it as a trump card in the upcoming presidential election."

The conservative-dominated parliament of Iran has in recent months taken many measures aimed at countering the US sanctions and neutralizing their impact.

Among the measures taken is a law under which Iran recently started enriching uranium up to the level of 20%, up from 4.5%, sparking concerns in the West.

Iran, however, has asserted that the measures are reversible if the US and its European allies return to full compliance with the deal.

Easing sanctions

While Iran maintains that the new US administration must begin with a return to commitments under the 2015 deal and easing sanctions, US officials have subjected that to Iran's rollback of the recent measures.

Zarif, in the American magazine, said the new US administration should start with "unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, re-imposed, or relabeled since Trump took office," while assuring that Iran would also "reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal."

He added that the "remaining signatories to the deal" would then take a call on "whether the United States should be allowed to reclaim the seat at the table that it abandoned in 2018."

Javad Heirannia, director of Persian Gulf Studies at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, believes the two countries may resolve the issues related to the JCPOA "step by step," which could result in easing some sanctions, but the "complete resolution" could be postponed until the new government takes control in Tehran.

"The United States has realized the powerful impact of secondary sanctions [on Iran] so it will keep them as leverage," Heirannia said. "To begin with, some sanctions may be lifted, including those against Foreign Minister Zarif, or recent penalties against some Iranian banks."

Washington, he said, is aware that if it does not take steps to lift some sanctions, there will be "no incentive for Iran to negotiate" on both nuclear and non-nuclear matters.

Political analyst Hossein Khoshwaqt said Biden may ease some sanctions first, and then ask for negotiations to lift the rest.

Experts unanimously agreed that as a precursor to easing sanctions and returning to full compliance with the nuclear pact, the two sides first need to de-escalate tensions that almost sparked fears of military confrontation during the final weeks of Trump’s presidency.

The US dispatched warships, bombers, an aircraft carrier and a submarine to the Persian Gulf recently. In response, Iran carried out a series of large-scale military drills involving missiles, drones, aircraft and submarines in different parts of the country.

Moosavi said the process of de-escalation has "already begun" with the inauguration of Biden as Trump's successor.

Khoshwaqt is also hopeful that Biden's arrival could lead to de-escalation as he is expected to "show prudence," but said the two sides would remain "rivals and enemies."

Regional equation

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently created a stir when he demanded "tough discussions" regarding Iran's ballistic missile program and "destabilization" in the region.

Zarif responded sharply to the remarks, addressed Le Drian and accused his country of “destabilizing” the region, asking him to “avoid absurd nonsense about Iran.”

Iran's involvement in the region and its rift with US regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates could also have a bearing on the Biden administration's policy toward Iran.

Iran's engagement in neighboring Iraq, where US forces have come under frequent attacks since the assassination of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad early last year, is also likely to impact the process. US officials have blamed Iran-allied groups in Iraq for the attacks, even though Tehran has rejected the claims.

In his Friday article, Zarif said Iran is "willing to discuss the problems plaguing our region," asserting that the US or its European allies have no "prerogative to lead or sponsor future talks."

The Persian Gulf region, he said, needs an "inclusive regional mechanism" to encourage diplomacy and cooperation, and lower the risk of conflict.

The Biden administration is scheduled to hold talks with foreign counterparts and allies in the coming weeks, as it seeks to strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran through diplomacy.

"We would expect that some of his earlier conversations with foreign counterparts and foreign leaders will be with partners and allies and you would certainly anticipate that this would be part of the discussions," Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week.

That can only complicate the process of easing tensions since Israeli officials have reportedly expressed concern about the Biden administration’s plan to revive the JCPOA.

Heirannia said the US has "strategic relations" with countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two archenemies of Iran.

"There won't be any fundamental change in Washington's relations with Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but the easing of tensions with Tehran could prevent the formation of the Arab-Hebrew front like during Trump's time," he said, with a hint of optimism and fear.


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