By Mohammad Mazhari

A Biden win doesn’t mean unconditional return to nuclear deal: academic

October 6, 2020 - 10:18

TEHRAN – An American academic is of the view that a Joe Biden victory in the upcoming presidential elections doesn’t mean that the United States will return to the 2015 nuclear deal unconditionally. 

However, Professor Edward Rhodes tells the Tehran Times that a Biden win will pave the way “to return to the bargaining table to address the legitimate grievances that both the United States and Iran have against each other.”
Rhodes, a professor of government and international affairs, also says “If Biden wins in November's election, we will nearly certainly see a rapid and quite dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy.” 


Following is the text of the interview:

Q:  Is there a possibility of a rapid change in U.S. foreign policy if Joe Biden wins the November elections? Will the U.S. return to the nuclear deal without preconditions?
A: If Biden wins in November's election, we will nearly certainly see a rapid and quite dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy after inauguration day (January 20, 2021), including a less confrontational approach to U.S.-Iranian relations.  
This does not, however, imply a return to the nuclear deal without preconditions.  What it does imply is a willingness to return to the bargaining table to address the legitimate grievances that both the United States and Iran have against each other.  Unlike the Trump administration, which prefers a hostile stalemate in U.S.-Iranian relations to the mutual compromises that would be necessary to move these relations back to a more normal footing, a Biden administration would nearly certainly prefer a negotiated outcome.  Like the Trump administration, however, a Biden administration will seek not only changes in Iran's nuclear policy but reductions in Iran's support for various transnational actors.


Q:  What do Americans think of Trump's foreign policy?
A: To understand American attitudes toward President Trump's foreign policies, it is necessary to distinguish between the foreign policy elite – that is, diplomats, opinion leaders, corporate and labor leaders, academics, and the ordinary public.  In general, members of the foreign policy elite, even the traditional Republican foreign policy elite, view the Trump administration's foreign policy as idiotic, incoherent, incompetent, and dangerous.  Members of the foreign policy elite who agree on absolutely nothing else agree that the past four years have been a disaster for U.S. foreign policy and that another four years of the same would be a disaster both for the United States and the world.
The American public, by contrast, generally does not think about foreign policy at all.  American society's sheer size and self-contained nature mean that typical Americans never need to form clear or consistent views on foreign policy.  The issues on which they base their votes are nearly always domestic ones, not foreign policy ones, and this will again be the case in 2020.  
To the degree that average Americans think about the world outside their national borders, their thinking is shaped by a few basic assumptions or images.
  For example, one of America's divides today is between those Americans who view the outside world as essentially hostile and dangerous and those who believe that international and transnational ties are healthy and desirable.
This particular divide is important because it mirrors and reinforces the divide between those Americans who have not prospered in the last half-century and those who have, and between those who see American culture and values as being eroded quickly and those who see American culture and values evolving in positive and healthy directions.
However, broadly shared by most Americans is a highly negative image of Iran. This image is rooted in the events of 1979 and 1980 when American diplomats were held hostage in Iran. This episode had a searing impact on Americans.  For most Americans, this episode defines Iran.  As a consequence, American public attitudes toward Iran and everything Iranian is at best highly suspicious and are, more typically, highly hostile.  

This historically rooted, knee-jerk anti-Iranian attitude of the bulk of the American public is a political reality that the foreign policy elite and any American president needs to be sensitive to and must maneuver around.  Any agreement or any negotiation that might be made to appear to the American public as representing an "unconditional" or unilateral concession to Iran will be politically impossible.
Public opinion of this sort imposes a variety of constraints on any administration, even one committed to negotiations with Iran.  Particularly if the Republican Party retains control over the Senate (which it probably will) and even if the Republican Party simply has 41 seats in the Senate (which it certainly will), the Senate will be in a position to block any breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations and will do so if this appears to be what the American public wants.

Q:  How do you assess the stance of European countries on U.S. sanctions against Iran? Despite all promises by European capitals, U.S. sanctions came into effect and Europeans are not willing to cooperate with Iran.
A: I think there are two important points to make here.
The first is that the Trump administration regards European attitudes and European opinions as irrelevant.  Indeed, at times it appears the President Trump may view European opposition as strong evidence that he is doing the right thing.
The second is that the divide between the United States and most of its European allies is less than it might appear.  True, most of America's European allies find the Trump administration's unilateral and confrontational approach to Iran as wrong-headed and unhelpful.  Largely, however, the disagreement between America and Europe is over tactics, not over goals – and in some cases, the disagreement is more about the Trump administration's dismissive attitude toward Europe than it is about the Trump administration's policy toward Iran. 

European opposition to the Trump administration's policies should not be taken to indicate European support for Iran's actions or demands.  The expectation on both sides of the Atlantic is that a Biden administration would be able to work with European leaders to forge a united European-American position in any negotiations with Iran.

“The disagreement between America and Europe (regarding Iran) is over tactics, not over goals – and in some cases, the disagreement is more about the Trump administration's dismissive attitude toward Europe than it is about the Trump administration's policy toward Iran.”Q:  What is your assessment of the chances of Joe Biden in the election based on opinion polls? Is it possible that the 2016 Clinton-Trump scenario to be repeated and Trump win again?

A: If the presidential election were held today, Mr. Biden would receive a clear majority in the popular vote.  The American system selects the president indirectly, of course, through an electoral college system that reflects the preferences of Americans on a state-by-state basis.  This makes outcomes a bit harder to predict, as we saw in 2016 when the popular vote predictions were right, but predictions of the vote on a state-by-state basis were off sufficiently to lead to an incorrect prediction by pollsters.
Even taking this into account, it seems very likely that Mr. Biden would win a clear majority in the electoral college – again if the election were held today.
The election, of course, is not today, and while the substantial majority of Americans have already definitively decided to vote for Mr. Trump or for Mr. Biden, there are enough voters who might conceivably change their preferences to make the outcome in November still quite uncertain.  The key issues that might swing voters one way or the other have nothing at all to do with Iran, or even with foreign policy more broadly.  The issues that appear likely to swing the election are:  how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the American economy and everyday life; how the racial issues and current civil unrest in American cities are best addressed; and whether the continued release of documents and memoirs suggesting disrespect by President Trump for American institutions and American military veterans undermines support for the President in his base.  

Q:  Don’t you expect Trump to resort to a military adventure to provoke national sentiment in his favor to increase his election chances?
A: It is impossible to pr
edict what this president might do.  Certainly, however, if an international incident resulted in the loss of American lives or that appeared to be an attack on American honor or prestige, the likelihood is high that the president would respond with military force and that this reaction would garner his political support.
Perhaps equally important, was there a serious incident in Iranian-American relations between now and November, it would be politically difficult for Democrats or doves to oppose a military response.

Q:  What have been the achievements of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran? Don’t you think that Iran's closer ties with China and Russia and also China's growing influence in the Middle East (West Asia), would be a wake-up call to the U.S.?

A: From the perspective of President Trump, maximum pressure on Iran has had three positive consequences.  First, it has tended to financially weaken the Iranian state, thus presumably reducing the Iranian state's ability to finance transnational groups that the United States regards as hostile to its interests.  Second, this hardline policy has had the political advantage of appealing to the American public's portion that has visceral anti-Iranian attitudes, based on historical memories of 1979-80.  Third, given the current glut of oil on world markets, reducing the amount of Iranian oil – or any additional oil -- in these markets is seen as desirable.
The expansion of Chinese presence and influence anywhere is increasingly a matter of concern to the United States.  This said the decreasing current and foreseeable world demand for Persian Gulf oil reduces U.S. short-term sensitivity to Chinese activities in the Islamic world.  
In the longer term, Chinese economic development approaches -- and particularly to foreign economic investment -- are seen as likely to be incompatible with Iran's national interests and national character.  In other words, the American conclusion is that Iran will find China a difficult long-term partner.  Similarly, on the flip side, a strong Sino-Iranian relationship, particularly in security matters, will make Sino-Arab partnership more difficult – meaning that China will find Iran an unattractive long-term partner.  This is not to say that the United States does not take Sino-Iranian cooperation seriously.  It is only to suggest that the United States is likely to conclude that it can live with this.

As for the current Russo-Iranian demarche, the American foreign policy community has difficulty regarding the prospect of close ties between Iran and Russia.  Economically, there is no synergy in this relationship, and the Russian ability to provide Iran with the capital and technology that will be most useful in rebuilding and advancing the Iranian economy is limited.  More to the point, the virulently anti-Islamic character of Russian domestic policy, and Russia's concerns regarding the spread of Islam, are seen as inevitably generating tension in any Russo-Iranian relationship.

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