The future Biden administration facing the Iranian nuclear issue

17 November 2020

By Elena Aoun, Professor in International Relations, Catholic University of Louvain and Jeremy Dieudonne, PhD student in International Relations, Catholic University of Louvain

This article first appeared on The Conversation

Four years of anti-Iranian obsession come to an end with the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House. In fact, Donald Trump and his team, almost completely aligned with Israeli Likud, have never ceased to demonize Iran, repudiating the Iran nuclear deal and compromising any chance of a peaceful outcome in the disputes between Washington to Tehran. The arrival of Joe Biden lets hope for a certain appeasement. But it is not certain that the momentum started under the Obama era can be relaunched as if the Trumpian disruption had not taken place.

From sworn enemies to potential partners

The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage-taking at the American Embassy (1979) marked the beginning of a long enmity between Tehran and Washington that post-Cold War transformations did not affect. In 2002, the revelations of an Iranian dissident concerning Tehran's nuclear program sparked new showdowns. The particularly aggressive speech of Iranian President Ahmadinejad at the United Nations in 2011, then the oil embargo decided by the United States and the European Union in 2012 marked the height of tensions.

The election of the moderate candidate Hassan Rohani, coupled with Barack Obama's desire to attempt the diplomatic route, makes it possible to break the circle of overbidding. Begun in Geneva in September 2013, the resumption of negotiations on nuclear power marks a major shift. For the first time in thirty-five years, a high-level dialogue began, then materialized in Vienna in July 2015 with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) .

In addition to the consensually adopted limitations and guarantees regarding Iranian nuclear activities, this agreement marks the beginning of a reversal of mutual perceptions. Initially enemies, the two countries begin to collaborate, and the lifting of sanctions promises to increase financial, commercial, diplomatic exchanges, etc. New levers would then appear, allowing the two States to move forward towards a gradual resolution of their differences. It is all this potential that Donald Trump has reversed with the back of his hand.

Trump, back all!

Although he has multiplied diatribes against Tehran, President Trump only takes negative action on Iran after the dismissal of its first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. The arrival of John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo at the State Department, known for their opposition to the JCPoA and their closeness to regional policies of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, is a game- changer . The Trump administration repudiates the JCPoA in May 2018 and unilaterally adopts the harshest sanctions ever against Tehran.

At the same time, a real policy of demonizing Tehran is being put in place. “Main state sponsor of terrorism” , “aggressor” or even “propagator of chaos, violence and bloodshed” are all terms by which Washington has routinely qualified Tehran, thereby reconstructing an irremediable opposition between the two countries and preparing the field to extreme actions.

The most striking is the assassination of Iranian General Ghassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020. The liquidation of one of the highest dignitaries of the Islamic Republic represented what is closest to an act of war. Its disappearance, if it has temporarily weakened the fabric of Iranian actors and their allies in the Middle East, has above all helped to revive the logics of confrontation.

In doing so, the Trump administration has torpedoed the potential for cooperation and taming that Rouhani and Obama had aroused by signing the JCPoA, regardless of the consequences. These are however considerable and could complicate the action of the future administration.

The future Biden administration: what are the expectations?

In this context, Trump's failure to get re-elected is excellent news for many Iranians, but also for American supporters of a realistic and measured policy towards Tehran, aware that the Iranian nuclear issue can only have a negotiated solution. Therefore, the hope is that the future president will re-engage his country in the JCPoA, as he promised during his campaign .

Admittedly, one can hardly imagine a total paradigm shift since, for Biden too, Iran remains perceived as a threat . The expectation is for a return to a policy that capitalizes on the potential of the virtuous circle induced by the JCPoA by reintegrating the latter and abandoning the inflammatory rhetoric with regard to Tehran in order to curb the Iranian nuclear risk and, ultimately, integrate the country in a less confrontational regional game.

However, it is not sure that things can pick up where they were when the Trump administration chose to sink the deal.

Multiple possible complications

The signing in 2015 of the Iran nuclear deal was the result of a rare occurrence: that of moderate presidents here and there, realizing that their differences could only be resolved through negotiation. This rare window of opportunity has undoubtedly narrowed for several reasons.

On the Iranian side, the rhetoric and action of the Trump administration have helped weaken the moderates , led by President Rouhani and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif. In the eyes of their internal rivals, the lightness with which Washington threw the deal away, the unilateral sanctions, the assassination of Soleimani, the demonization of Iran are all proof that the Rouhani administration was wrong to negotiate. and trust the United States.

Confronted, moreover, with a popular protest born of the degradation of socio-economic conditions, the hard fringe of the regime has locked the political game more closely. Countless reformist or moderate candidates in the 2020 legislative elections were disqualified, and abstention broke a record since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The result was a Majlis massively dominated by the conservatives and headed by Mohammad Ghalibaf , conservative expected to be a candidate for the future presidential election, scheduled for mid-June 2021. In other words, Biden and Rohani (who will no longer be able to stand for re-election, having already carried out two mandates) will only have a small quarter to “renew”.

On the American side, Trump's presidency leaves so many burning issues, both internally and internationally, that Biden's team may not prioritize resuming negotiations with Iran. Moreover, the future president will have to brave a very radical Israeli government on the Iranian question even though Biden is a fervent supporter of the Israeli state. Reinforced in its maximalist regional policies by the Trump administration, the current Netanyahu government could lock Biden into an untenable alternative, threatening to use armed force against Iran if the United States returns to the JCPoA. This difficulty could, in addition, be increased by the reinforcement of the regional polarization which denotes therecent signing of peace agreements between Israel and several Gulf countries , supposedly federated by this common threat that would be Iran.

To these issues linked to the balance of power within the Iranian and American political chessboards, there are others directly linked to the JCPoA. First, in the face of the coercive policy adopted by Trump and the inability of the other signatories to the agreement to save it, the Iranian leadership ended up relaunching certain activities linked to the nuclear program.. Even if Iranian officials have repeatedly said that these measures were reversible, the fact remains that they create a new reality that could encourage Tehran to push its advantage in the negotiations and, conversely, the states. - United in wanting to put back on the table previous achievements. Added to this is the loss of confidence that the Iranians can place not only in the United States because of the Trump administration's failure to meet its commitments, but also in other signatories to the agreement. The combination of these elements could therefore block the simple reactivation of the latter.

Will Biden be able to fully break with Trump's legacy?

The challenges facing the future US administration in the Iranian dossier are complex. Many of these challenges result from the disruptive policies of the outgoing team, the consequences of which will undoubtedly take several years before being fully revealed. It is to be hoped, for a stabilization of the Middle East, that the new tenant of the White House can meet these challenges and prove capable of reorienting the diplomacy of his country, favoring a long-term diplomacy that brings the Iranian regime, beyond his changes between reformists and conservatives, to reintegrate the regional political game in a mode other than that of the nuisance to which his demonization condemns him.

At this point, it is difficult to assess whether Biden will have sufficient stature and wisdom to do this, and whether the narrow opening of the window of opportunity will be wide enough to lend itself to it ...