The Biden Administration and Iran Nuclear Deal: More Constraints than Possibilities

Analysts are already predicting the steps of the new US administration led by Joe Biden. One of the most interesting areas where Joe Biden can act and emphasize the difference in approaches with the Trump administration is the so-called “Iran nuclear deal”. Nevertheless, many factors could undermine this yet to be approved decision. Bridging the gaps between Washington and Tehran could be met with a number of problems, and the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh can have another negative impact on the future potential agreement between the US and Iran.

New deal, new terms?

It is presumed that many decisions in the administration of J. Biden will be made and implemented by his advisors and confidants from the Democratic Party. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s future national security advisor, said: “I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with finding a path forward on nuclear diplomacy early next year” which “then sets the stage for negotiation over a follow-on agreement.“ He also suggested that the US could ease sanctions in 2021 in exchange for Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations.[1] After the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018, the Iranians consistently refused to abide by a number of obligations under the deal – for example, they lifted restrictions on the amount and level of uranium enrichment.[2] Nevertheless, Tehran’s actions are tactical and reversible. Self-evidently, the Iranian’s decision on the eve of the American election to suspend the escalation, for example, in Iraq, was explained by the desire to reach agreements with the future administration. But the Americans, according to J. Sullivan, are determined, after finding a compromise on the nuclear issue, to “immediately” discuss other issues between the parties, as well as Iran’s “behaviour” in the region.[3]

The Iranians under President H. Rouhani would hardly hinder the return of the US to the fold of the JCPOA under J. Biden. However, the Iranian President noted that the Americans should “compensate for past mistakes”.[4] According to the Iranian position, the Americans should “accept to be held responsible for damages caused to the people of Iran” as a result of Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, and “provide guarantees” that this scenario will not be repeated in the future.[5] There is a catch here. Biden does not have to immediately take up the task of returning to the JCPOA and lifting all sanctions on Iran. Most likely, J. Biden will still bargain with Tehran on the terms of returning to the deal and terms of providing some partial sanctions relief. The issue of sanctions will not only run into new terms that the Biden administration can offer the Iranians, but also the opposition of the Republicans in the US Congress. Nevertheless, political gestures towards the US returning to the deal is possible. Joe Biden needs this mainly in the context of restoring transatlantic cooperation with Europeans.

In the name of nuclear peace?

Iranian nuclear dossier touches on several related topics at once. It is the Iranian issue that has become one of the key points of contention between the EU and the US under D. Trump. After Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the E3 (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) expressed regret over this fact and, despite Washington’s call, remained committed to the deal.[6]  The Europeans also did not support the idea of the Trump administration to re-initiate the process of restoring UN sanctions against Iran – the UN arms embargo was lifted on October 18, 2020, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The issue that undermined transatlantic trust and unity under the new American administration could thus be levelled.

Washington’s relations with its regional allies is another area that will be affected by the resumption of US negotiations on the JCPOA. J. Sullivan had previously stated: “We should not hold nuclear diplomacy hostage for the sake of regional diplomacy, but we should think about ways in which there are linkages that can push both of them forward.” Is it possible to separate the Iranian nuclear issue from regional politics and security? The Arab Gulf States themselves have often pointed out the injustice of their non-participation in the JCPOA. For them, this is a sign that their interests are not represented in a global deal that directly affects regional security.

The Middle Eastern allies of the USA

Major regional players, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, will be wary of the Biden administration’s first actions regarding the return of the United States to the JCPOA and the sanctions relief. The Israelis are openly against the deal concluded under Barack Obama. Given that J. Biden is well acquainted with both Israeli politicians and American lobbyists for Israel, and being a frequent guest of AIPAC conferences, one should not expect any negative action for US-Israeli relations from the administration. This means that the return of the United States to the JCPOA may face a number of conditions and inhibiting factors. The Saudis are willing to be part of any future deal and will also be dissatisfied with the American steps to return life to the JCPOA, while the situation for them may be further aggravated due to Joe Biden’s special vision of interaction with Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that the Saudis consider their relations with the United States to be deep-seated,[7] built on the basis of institutional work, Joe Biden’s statements showed the future US President’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy. For instance, on the anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Joe Biden declared: “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil. America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners”.[8] This approach, if implemented by the Biden administration, carries serious risks for relations between the two states. In addition, the Saudis may return to the idea of possessing nuclear weapons if the Americans will draw closer to Iran and put pressure on Saudi Arabia. Under the worst-case scenario of the US pressure, the Saudis could use the card in their sleeve – establishing official relations with Israel to balance the American policy towards them.

But the most serious headache for the Saudis in the context of the restoration of the JCPOA and the lifting sanctions on Iran is the oil market. As soon as Iran gets the opportunity to sell its oil, it will dramatically increase its market share. This will lower oil prices, as well as compel exporters to reduce their production. OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, will be forced to take additional measures to stabilize the market in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the return of Libyan and later Iranian oil. But the oil issue may also be a drag on Washington’s return to the JCPOA since the US oil industry itself provides millions of jobs. In addition to the fact that it is not profitable for the Americans to open up opportunities for other oil-producing players, the main consumer of Iranian oil is simultaneously the main American competitor – China.

Russia: fix the current deal

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, “Russia does not rule out the return of the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program… This would only be appreciated.” Since the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Moscow has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and offered diplomatic support to Tehran. When the United States submitted a draft resolution on Iran arms embargo extension to the UN Security Council in August 2020, only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted for in favour. Russia and China voted against, while the other members of the Security Council abstained. In mid-October, the UN arms embargo expired, and Tehran can legally return to the arms market. Russia is ready to help strengthen international mechanisms for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. In addition, Moscow and Tehran share a common assessment of the activities of the Trump administration, which pulled out of not one, but many international treaties. For Russia, for example, the NEW START is also fundamental, the extension of which will need the new American administration working with the Kremlin right after the inauguration day.

While welcoming the possibility of the US returning to the JCPOA, Moscow notes that this process should not “be accompanied or burdened by any additional terms.” “It is necessary to avoid any revision of the JCPOA, to prevent the inclusion of any terms in the process of its implementation that go beyond the comprehensive agreements of 2015, especially those that are unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program,” the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed. Thus, Moscow foreshadows that the Biden administration may not resist the temptation to include new conditions for a “new” deal. This path of the United States can delay the process and create new problems, especially if the Americans take into account the views of their Middle Eastern allies, such as Israel or Saudi Arabia. The Iranian nuclear issue remains resolvable only when it is discussed outside the regional policy issues and with limited participation of international players. The 2015 deal was optimal in this regard, and the parties should be committed to the existing legal framework, including the UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

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According to the rhetoric, the Joe Biden administration is ready to return to the JCPOA, but it faces a number of inhibiting factors. Both Washington and Tehran are already shaping their vision and linking their actions to pre-conditions for the other party in order to revive the JCPOA. While Biden said that the US is ready to return to the JCPOA if the Iranians fully comply with their obligations, the Iranians noted the need for compensation for the damage and guarantees. The Biden administration may delay returning to the JCPOA or making a deal with an eye to get itself a better position in the new negotiations. In addition, being interested in a stable oil market, the US is unlikely to rush to a large-scale return of Iranian oil. Another reason lies in the Iranian domestic political context. Following the results of the June 2021 election, a new president will replace H. Rouhani, who is serving his second and final term. It is expected that this will be a politician from the conservative camp. In these circumstances, the US may prefer to launch the negotiation process with the Iranians, but not to conclude deals with the outgoing Rouhani administration. Despite this approach during the first six months of his presidency, Biden could come to an agreement with the new, if more conservative, Iranian authorities later. Such an unhurried deal could be judged by the members of the Biden administration as much more sustainable and successful in terms of Iranian concessions, and therefore acceptable. In this case, the Americans are counting on the pragmatism of the Iranian authorities and their desire to get out of the sanctions pressure. However, given the Iranians’ distrust of the United States, it seems that such a calculation may not be justified.

[1] https://nationalinterest.org/blog/2020-election/biden-foreign-policy-advisor-here%E2%80%99s-how-we-would-fix-iran-deal-166323

[2] https://ria.ru/20200820/1576025639.html

[3] https://twitter.com/Dr_Ulrichsen/status/1325502500112379905

[4] https://www.startribune.com/iran-s-president-calls-on-biden-to-return-to-nuclear-deal/573007191/

[5] https://www.bourseandbazaar.com/articles/2020/11/7/the-iran-deal-biden-and-the-case-for-optimism

[6] https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2018/05/09/768976-otreagirovali-na-vihod-ssha

[7] https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/saudi-arabia-holds-its-breath-after-biden-win/46148724

[8] https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/