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Biden’s path back to Iran nuclear deal won’t be easy or fast

Golnar Motevalli and David Wainer
Bloomberg

America’s European allies have struggled to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive after President Donald Trump quit the accord more than two years ago. Joe Biden’s election victory won’t provide a quick resuscitation.

Biden said during the presidential campaign that Trump’s Iran policy weakened U.S. national security and left Tehran closer than ever to being able to build a nuclear bomb. He vowed to get on the phone with allies on “day one” to begin rebuilding strained ties and said he’d give Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy.”

President-elect Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.

But Iran’s mid-2021 presidential election, as well as likely continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate, will put the brakes on quick, substantive action, according to U.S. and Iranian diplomats and analysts. In addition, Biden has signaled that his priorities starting Jan. 20 will be on the economy and getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“I am not optimistic at all that in the short term anything significant will happen between Iran and the Americans,” Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former adviser to ex-President Mohammad Khatami, said in an interview. “It’s not impossible, but it will be extremely difficult.”

Nuclear watchdogs and security analysts aren’t the only ones focused on what Biden could accomplish: Oil markets are betting on some easing of tensions by summer 2021 that will free the way for Iranian crude to return to global markets by year-end, Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Advisors, said on Bloomberg TV last week.

That could still be an optimistic timeline.

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – who leaves office next year after staking his political legacy and reputation on the nuclear accord reached during the Obama administration – referred to Biden as “the new man who’s arrived” and had campaigned on returning to the accord. “If they stick to their responsibilities they can choose the new path,” he said.

But uncertainty about Rouhani’s successor, and the potential that elections could lead to a much harder-line government, will probably temper Biden’s enthusiasm to get something done quickly.

In addition, while presidents generally have some leeway on foreign policy, a Senate under Republican control would mean lawmakers would demand assurances on Biden’s Iran policy before they confirm his nominees, said Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official under Trump.

“Any effort to rejoin the Iran deal and build on it will be intensely scrutinized in Congress and among domestic critics,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.

If Biden pursues a rally-the-allies approach to Iran, that will probably include close consultations with everyone from Israel to the U.A.E., which aren’t likely to be as accommodating as European partners.

The normalization accords in the region are “deeply connected to the pressure that we’ve put on Iran,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in an interview with the Hugh Hewitt Show. “If you undermine that pressure, if you undermine the confidence that the Gulf states have that the United States will be a partner for peace in the Middle East, we are in for a very difficult, long time.”

An official with Biden’s transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Going First

Pressuring Biden to take the first step may be tough after the Trump administration spent four years highlighting the threat from Iran, which the U.S. sees as sowing turmoil across the Mideast and accused of hacking American voter data before the election.

Iran’s actions since the U.S. quit the 2015 nuclear deal – including its decision to ramp up uranium enrichment – have in some ways bolstered the Trump administration’s arguments.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that Iran’s uranium stockpiles have grown eightfold since the U.S. quit the deal, and it now has enough supply to create three bombs if it enriches the material to weapons grade. Iran says its moves are reversible if the U.S. returns to the accord, and it has continued to host IAEA inspectors and meet other requirements of the nuclear deal.

Iran’s Requirements

Iran has signaled its requirements for reviving the multinational deal.

Its negotiators would want to see an authentic effort by Biden to not only scrap Trump’s approach but show that the U.S. had a longterm commitment to the accord, said a source close to official foreign policy circles in Tehran who didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

An Iranian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Biden would have to return to the nuclear accord without condition, compensation to Iran would have to be on the table and the U.S. would have to guarantee that it won’t invoke a “snapback” of United Nations sanctions as the Trump administration has tried to do.

Biden could take some smaller moves that would reduce the pressure on Tehran without committing the U.S. to a full-fledged detente. He could, for instance, ease the transfer of humanitarian aid to Iran, especially as the coronavirus batters the country’s health-care system, said Naysan Rafati, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst.

The U.S. can also try to help Iran gain access to a long-sought loan from the International Monetary Fund, he added. But even that would engender heavy scrutiny by Republicans, who are wary of providing funding to a government long listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That’s especially true now that the first of the accord’s “sunset” provisions, which expire at fixed dates, has already passed. An international ban on Iranian arms purchases lapsed in October and other restrictions built into the accord expire in less than five years.

The short time horizon of the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers prompted Biden to say he wants to expand on the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Elliot Abrams, U.S. special representative for Iran, talks during an interview with The Associated Press at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.

Iranian officials, while broadly welcoming Trump’s defeat, have repeatedly said that the original terms of the deal can’t be renegotiated.

“I don’t see Iran being willing to walk that path,” said Adnan Tabatabai, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, adding that Iran would be “allergic” to any mention of a “JCPOA-Plus”.

A final hurdle could still come from Trump, as his team works to restrict options for the incoming administration. The administration has been working to create a layer of hard-to-reverse sanctions that could initially hobble Biden’s efforts.

Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Iran and Venezuela, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Thursday that the Trump administration will impose new sanctions on Iran but declined to specify which Iranian entities would be targeted or when penalties were likely.

“The Trump administration’s approach now is to add more and more threads to this spider web and hope the next guy has a hard time washing them away,” said Rafati, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst. “There’s very little in here that’s totally irreversible. But these are harder to undo because you have to make the case that terrorism is no longer a concern.”