A view from Tehran Street as a citizen reads news related to the US elections in the newspapers, on November 09, 2020 in Tehran, Iran.
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Washington – President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Iran abides by the agreement, but both sides will have to race against time and navigate a political minefield to reach this goal.
With Iran’s elections approaching in June, former U.S. officials, European diplomats and regional experts say, any diplomatic effort will have to move quickly during Biden’s first few months in office.
Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, has thrown his weight behind the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and there is no guarantee that the next Iranian president will be open to a deal.
Former US officials have said that Biden and Rouhani also must deal with fierce opponents of the deal in Washington and Tehran, as well as in the region, and they will need to show that any concessions are met with reciprocal actions by the other side.
Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have sent clear messages that Iran is ready to talk to the Biden administration about reviving the deal, as long as Washington abides by the terms of the agreement.
“Our goal is to lift the sanctions pressure off the shoulders of our people,” Rouhani said in televised remarks at a recent cabinet meeting. “Where this auspicious opportunity presents, we will act on our responsibilities. Nobody should miss any opportunity.”
Elie Geranmaye, a senior political fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Iranian government’s statements over the past two weeks show that it is “moving very quickly to give Biden various options to re-engage Iran diplomatically.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has pledged to continue to escalate pressure on Iran in the final months of its tenure, and impose new sanctions this week that could complicate Biden’s plans.
“It seems clear that the Trump administration wants to continue implementing the maximum pressure policy between now and January,” said Nissan Ravati, chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank. “They view this as a period to secure their own policy to the extent possible.”
The 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers lifted economic sanctions imposed on Tehran in exchange for severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. But after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, Iran violated some of those restrictions, cutting the time it takes Tehran to build an atomic bomb.
Trump reimposed sanctions that had been relaxed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and imposed several additional sanctions on Iran, dealing a severe blow to the country’s economy. The country’s currency has devalued, inflation has spread, and its oil exports – Iran’s main source of revenue – have fallen dramatically.
But the sanctions have not discouraged Iran from developing its nuclear program. Iran collected 12 times the amount of low-enriched uranium allowed under the agreement, exceeded the levels of enrichment set by the agreement, and provided more centrifuges than the agreement allows, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Nuclear experts say the Iranian “breakthrough time” to secure enough weapons-grade materials to build an atomic bomb has decreased from 12 months when the agreement entered into force to about three to four months.
In a September op-ed, as president, Biden said he would “pledge an unwavering commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He argued that the best way to achieve this was for the United States to enter the deal again.
“I will offer Tehran a credible path to return to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States will join the agreement as a starting point for follow-up negotiations,” Biden wrote.
Even if Biden and Rouhani were looking to reach an agreement, hammering out a formula that would allow the United States to re-enter the deal, and Iran abandon its nuclear activities, will not be easy.
Rather than lifting sanctions all at once or Iran immediately returning to full compliance, the most likely scenario could see a phased approach over three or four months, former US officials and European diplomats said. The first step could be Iran freezing its nuclear activities in exchange for easing a certain level of sanctions. Additional steps could lead to an eventual return by Iran to compliance and the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions.
The Biden team is no stranger to the topic or to Iranian diplomats, as many of his advisors were deeply involved in the long negotiations that led to the 2015 deal under President Barack Obama. Biden himself has met the Iranian foreign minister dozens of times. Former officials said the experience could help speed up diplomacy and improve the prospects for a deal.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration will have to decide whether to lift other sanctions imposed by Trump after the deal went into effect, including those targeting Iran’s central bank. Many of the sanctions do not relate to Iranian nuclear activity but refer to ballistic missiles, human rights and Iran’s support for proxy forces in the region such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Although Biden and European officials suggested building on the agreement to address other issues, including Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal, Iran has so far rejected that idea. Moreover, any new deal outside the bounds of the 2015 deal must win the approval of the skeptical US Congress, as the outcome of the two run-off races in Georgia on January 5 will decide whether Republicans retain a majority of their seats in the Senate.
Israel and the Gulf Arab states, which have vehemently opposed the nuclear deal, will be required to express their opinion in the event that a new agreement is presented for negotiation.
“If we are going to negotiate about the security of our part of the world, we should be there,” said the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, at an event recently organized by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Iran will not be prepared to put its missile force on the table unless the defense systems of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also up for discussion, which is hard to imagine happening in the current climate, according to Richard Dalton, the British ambassador to Iran from 2002-2006.
“I think we can rule out the big bargain approach where everything is on the table at once,” Dalton said.
But critics of the 2015 deal say Biden will inherit valuable leverage from Trump’s sanctions, and that he can hold out on better terms than just returning to the original deal.
“From my point of view, it would be crazy to join the deal without getting something else from it,” said David Albright, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security. “Whatever you think of Trump – and I don’t like that he left the deal – he’s created an enormous amount of leverage over Iran, and not using that seems crazy. In that sense it’s a gift to Biden.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday defended the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign as successful and warned against lifting sanctions, saying it would provide money for the Iranian regime’s military and its proxies in the region. “Reducing this pressure is a dangerous option that would weaken the new partnerships for peace in the region and only strengthen the Islamic Republic,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Another wild card looming in the negotiations is whether and how Iran plans to respond to Trump’s decision to assassinate one of its top generals, Qassem Soleimani. Although Iran responded at the time by launching missiles at US forces in Iraq, few believed that this would be the country’s total response. On Sunday, a senior Iranian general vowed to “avenge Soleimani’s blood in the field.”
Current and former US intelligence officials have said they believe Iran will run out of time and carefully plan a stronger response, perhaps striking a US general or ambassador abroad.
Former US officials have said that Biden will, in his first days in office, make sure to reduce tensions with Iran. The new president may take a number of confidence-building steps that would show that Washington is ready for diplomacy, according to former European diplomats and US officials. Steps could include lifting sanctions on the Iranian foreign minister and some other senior officials, lifting the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries that affected many Iranian Americans, and easing restrictions on humanitarian imports into Iran.
Biden has already pledged to lift the travel ban and said he will “make sure that US sanctions do not hamper Iran’s fight against COVID-19.”
Iranian officials have said that Iran is facing a shortage of medicine and medical equipment, including insulin, cancer treatment drugs, flu vaccines and coronavirus test kits. The Treasury Department has issued licenses allowing for humanitarian imports and says the United States is not responsible for any shortages or hikes in the prices of medical goods.
Catherine Power, a former Treasury official, said the Trump administration’s tough sanctions policy has had a chilling effect on many foreign banks, who are wary of the risk of running into U.S. sanctions, even though humanitarian trade is legally permitted.
“Because of the Trump administration’s enforcement stance, banks are still reluctant to engage in this kind of trade,” said Power, who now works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Bauer and other former officials said high-level public statements and new directives from the Biden administration could send a signal to European and other banks to approve humanitarian transactions that Iran demands.
Without a deal before Iran’s elections in June 2021, Biden may not have a willing peer to negotiate a deal.
If this was the parliamentary elections last February, Former US officials and experts said that as the conservatives made gains amid low turnout, they are among the pioneers of the vote next year, the next Iranian president may be more conservative and more skeptical of international participation, and may ruin any opportunity to breathe life into the deal. . However, if the current government in Iran succeeds in securing relief from US sanctions before the vote, this could provide a lifeline for Rouhani’s moderate allies.
Trump’s stance toward Iran has given ammunition to Iranian hard-liners who have opposed the deal from the start, criticizing Rouhani as naive because he trusts the Americans. Many argued that the United States owed Iran “compensation” for the damage caused by the sanctions, before Tehran considered returning to compliance.
Despite the speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the clique of hardliners around him have not completely closed the door to revive the deal, in part because they are desperate to access hard currency that has been banned due to US sanctions, according to the two. Former senior U.S. intelligence officials with long experience working on Iranian issues.
The former intelligence officials said the nuclear deal did not prejudice the militants’ priorities, which include an aggressive campaign to expand Iranian influence in the region through proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.