Iran: Biden’s Greatest Challenge

On January 20th, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. With a pandemic that has cost over 350,000 lives in full swing and the considerable economic fallout to boot, he faces some herculean tasks in his first days in office. Add to that his pledge to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, reverse the decision to leave the World Health Organization, with promises to tackle racial injustice and reform immigration policy, and Biden’s initial step into office seems far from easy. Alongside all this, there is one more pressing issue that Biden must address in his first days in office: the US relationship with Iran.

Under the outgoing administration, a policy of “maximum pressure” has been pursued against Iran. Dismissing the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) as a “horrible one-sided deal”, the administration withdrew from it in 2018. The deal had placed tight limits around Iran’s nuclear program and guaranteed access for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and in return, lifted certain sanctions. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump administration promptly began to reimpose harsh sanctions after it’s 12-point demands were rejected.

The logic behind this “maximum pressure” campaign is that harsh sanctions will cripple Iran’s economy and either force them back to the negotiating table or effect regime change. Neither has come to pass. Instead, economic hardship has been passed onto the Iranian people (and has been compounded by the virus outbreak) and any signs of public protest have been harshly suppressed. The only perceptible effects have been rising tensions in the region and Iran’s resumption of its nuclear weapons program.

In part, these tensions have been deliberately escalated. A year ago on January 3rd, Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC, was killed by a US drone strike. More recently, on November 27th Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist considered the architect of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, was killed in Tehran. It is widely believed that the attack was carried out by Israel (but this is not verified). It was seen as an attempt to scupper the incoming administration’s chances of securing an agreement. This, then, is the precarious stand-off the new administration will inherit.

For his part, Joe Biden has publicly declared his intention of re-joining the JCPOA as soon as he enters office if Iran resumes compliance. But things are hardly so simple. Tehran has already rejected the idea of complying without a reduction of sanctions. Even with Tehran’s compliance, there are other hurdles.

For one thing, over the past four years, the regional environment has shifted. Israel has normalised relations with certain Gulf states and other Arab countries. One crucial unifier has been Iran, whose regional influence has steadily grown. They are unlikely to acquiesce to a simple resumption of the 2015 deal. They will want to push for stronger curbs including Iran’s missile program or support for organizations such as Hezbollah. 

Time is not on Joe Biden’s side. The failure of the JCPOA to produce promised economic results has emboldened hardliners in Iran even as it has discredited the moderates who orchestrated it. In parliamentary elections last year, the hardliners won handily. The current President’s second term expires in June. As hard as it may be for Biden to seal a deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program now, it will be all but impossible if hardliners prevail.

The priority must be to lift sanctions in exchange for assuring Iranian compliance with the JCPOA. Other issues such as Iran’s missile program may have to wait. The administration will have a five-month window to secure a deal. With heightened tensions, belligerent allies, and reckless rhetoric offering an explosive backdrop, that in and of itself will be quite an achievement.

Words by Reuben Bharucha

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