Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran and Biden: Challenges Beyond the JCPOA

Iran Biden relation
Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Trump and President-elect Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. November 28, 2020. Photo: ATTA KENARE / AFP

By: Hassan Ahmadian

President elect Joe Biden has time and again reiterated his opposition to Trump’s Iran policy. His election might usher a new phase and change the course of growing animosity between the two nations—though many remain skeptical of such an outcome. Iran’s policy vis-à-vis the Biden administration will be reactive to the choices his administration follows. A continuation of the maximum pressure would mean continued Iranian defiance to US demands, while a return to diplomacy can increase the trust and lead to further negotiations and possible agreements.

Trashing the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), President Trump took a U-turn on Iran, embarking on an extreme unilateral approach. Imposing maximum pressure and threatening military action against the country were parts of being tougher on adversaries to extract more concessions—which didn’t work with Iran. Facing Trump’s policy, Tehran started its “strategic patience” and after one year of his withdrawal from the JCPOA, replaced its patience with “active resistance”—using different means in both the nuclear program as well as regional issues to deter US escalations and force it back to the JCPOA. As such, Iran started downgrading its nuclear commitments in the JCPOA in line with its terms (articles 26 and 36) according to Iranian officials. Things, however, escalated further and the year 2020 saw two high-profile assassinations—of Maj. Genaral Qassem Solaimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Biden’s campaign promises and signals have so far been way different from those of Trump. Promising to return to the nuclear deal and resorting to diplomacy as opposed to the unilateral maximum pressure was received well—though with caution—in Tehran. Iranian officials spoke about a reciprocal return to JCPOA commitments, suggesting a step-by-step approach for the restoration of the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, talks in Biden’s foreign policy circles suggest a divergence in views on the suitable choices in the next US administration’s Iran policy. While some see an unconditional return to the JCPOA as the best course to set the ground for further negotiations, others focus on the rationality of using the leverage brought by Trump’s maximum pressure to extract more concessions from Tehran.

Accordingly, Iranians are likely to await the course of action the Biden administration takes to respond. And while the first choice would obviously be welcomed by Tehran, setting the scene for its return to full compliance, the second is to trigger debates in Iran not so different from those brought up under Trump’s maximum pressure—most probably leading to Iran’s defiance and continued emphasis on its active resistance.

While Biden’s willingness to return to the JCPOA has made its revival more probable, his possible resorting to preconditions and Iran’s own conditions have the potential to complicate the situation. Within the Iranian debates on Biden’s policy, which predates the US elections but were more heated afterwards, much of the critics’ points on the JCPOA came up as needed remedies for the nuclear deal to make it more balanced and both give Iran privileges equal to those of the P5+1 in the deal and strengthen its legal grounds against future violations.

Three points could be taken as the main ones: first is that the US has to compensate for previous violations to enjoy the privileges of the nuclear deal and become a full member again. The hardships created by Trump’s violation of the deal and imposition of the maximum pressure campaign with costs amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars cannot just be ignored and should be compensated for accordingly. Second, the JCPOA should have a more robust legal grounds to deter future violations and penalize violators—which is obviously hard to achieve in any scenario. Third, a return to JCPOA obligations should proceed in a reciprocal step-by-step fashion and unlike the 2015, Iran should not fulfill all of its commitments before others’ commitments materialize in practice.

Iran-US differences are not confined to the JCPOA. Iran’s regional policy and its ballistic missiles capabilities have long been some of the talking points in the Trump administration as well as the Biden foreign policy team. In fact, one of the main criticisms raised in the US against the JCPOA is that it did not tackle Iran’s regional influence and missiles capabilities. Besides the nuclear know-how, Iran’s regional influence and missiles capabilities are Tehran’s main sources of power and—according to debates in Tehran—should not be on a table with parties proven untrustworthy. Nevertheless, Iran has tried to play a positive role in regional issues and embarked on rounds of discussions on regional crises, namely on Yemen with Europeans and on Syria with its Astana partners and has offered different initiatives aimed at conflict resolution of regional crises. This can also be the case under Biden. However, linking the revival of the JCPOA with regional issues as a precondition can de-incentivize Iran on negotiations with the new US administration.

Iran’s missile capabilities, however, remain off the table for Tehran. Iran’s defiance to discuss its missiles program is rooted in the fact that it does not enjoy international support in times of crises and as such, those capabilities serve as the country’s main deterrent and defensive means vis-à-vis its adversaries. As such, US and E3 demands in that regard have always been viewed negatively as interference in Iran’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, in a tacit way of reassuring the international community on the defensive nature of its ballistic missiles program, Iran has been putting voluntary caps on the range of its missiles on the one hand and focusing on increasing the precision of its missiles—suggesting that they are not designed to be nuclear warhead vehicles—on the other. In any case, this is likely to remain a sources of divergence between Iran and the Biden administration.

Iran’s internal politics are also to play a role in Iran-US relations under Biden. Trump’s unilateral approach that caused much economic hardships effectively delegitimized the Rouhani administration’s foreign policy approach of constructive engagement—and the moderate/reformist views on foreign policy in the Iranian political scene. The results of the recent parliamentary elections, with a principalist/conservative decisive win, is an indicator of the direction Iran’s internal politics are heading. This is especially important because the country is heading to a presidential elections in June 2021 and parliamentary elections usually give a sense as where things are moving.

Without a breakthrough on the JCPOA, the moderate/reformist agenda is unlikely to gain traction in the upcoming elections. Even with a breakthrough there are serious doubts about its performance. The conservative factions have already gained traction and are likely to lead the upcoming elections debates. They are free of the criticism that the Rouhani administration and factions backing him have been hammered with in the past four years. Therefore, there is a political cost to be paid in both scenarios: a breakthrough in the JCPOA or the continuation of the status quo. Unlike the Rouhani approach, a conservative administration would be more inward looking and less enthusiastic about dealings with the United States.

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