When President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, it initiated a series of unfortunate events plunging the Iran-US relations into a deep pit of despair. In these twilight months of his presidency, Trump resorted to imposing a series of harsh sanctions against Iranian banks and individuals. This will only add an unnecessary layer of bureaucratic rigmarole for president-elect Joe Biden’s administration to unravel if it chooses to mend ties with Iran. In the event of doing so, the first order of business would be to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal. But would it be so easily done?
The incoming Biden administration would have to at first ascertain its expectations and pre-conditions prior to talks with the Iranian government with reference the latter’s violations of the JCPOA and its regional behaviour. It is an essential pre-requisite as Iranian officials have indicated frequently that re-negotiation of the 2015 agreement is unquestionable. Thus, managing expectations and careful utilisation of leverage that both sides hold is crucial for a possible return to the JCPOA.
The US would also have to take all its allies on board, especially the EU signatories, while reassuring them that it is a reliable signatory of multilateral agreements. Trump’s unceremonious departure from the JCPOA had previously left its European allies in the lurch, scrambling to keep Iran compliant to the deal and prevent regional instability. Thus, gaining back the trust of its long-term allies would require the US to present a clear policy toward Iran. In case of a possible reinstatement of the deal, the US must also prepare to appease its Arab allies and Israel, who oppose the nuclear deal.
Iranian presidential elections are scheduled to be held in June 2021 and would prove a decisive factor in determining the trajectory of the US-Iran relations through the next four years. Trump’s abortive campaign to maximise pressure on Iran facilitated the rise of right-wing conservative political wave of dissent against the US within Iran. The US drone strike on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, General Qassem Soleimani, ordered by Trump following which anti-US protests erupted within Iran, was the final nail in the coffin.
All these measures have prompted an increase in anti-US narrative in the Iranian political scenario making it harder to negotiate with the US or its Western allies regarding easing the crippling sanctions on Iran. This difficulty is likely to continue if the US fails to indicate its willingness to engage Iran in substantive talks leading to concrete steps that might address the latter’s economic woes. Thus, for the new US president, the time to act will be during the initial months of his presidency so a multilateral agreement can be put in place preventing Iran from further uranium enrichment and violating the nuclear deal.
The overarching US policy approach toward Iran is unlikely to change under Biden as he has indicated during his campaign that he would seek to limit Iran’s regional activities and take tough measures, if provoked by Iran’s continued uranium enrichment steps. The new US administration will find its hands full undoing Trump administration’s policies in this region. Trump’s abandoning of the JCPOA was unilateral, abrupt and quite hasty, however, salvaging the deal would have to be a gradual and multilateral process in nature. Patience on both sides will be key and let us hope that sanity prevails all over for a better chance of long-term regional peace and stability.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2020.
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