Biden could face a bumpy road toward reviving the Iran deal

Near to impossible

November 23, 2020 - 10:15

TEHRAN – Joe Biden, who is widely projected to win the United States presidential election, has vowed to rejoin a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that President Donald Trump vociferously quit nearly two and a half years ago, but Biden has been very tight-lipped about how he would rejoin the nuclear deal or approach Iran in general.

His hitherto suspected silence about the deal could be indicative of his perception of the difficulties he would likely face in the coming months.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal's provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” Biden said in a September op-ed for CNN.

Since then, Biden has refrained from making any remarks concerning the nuclear deal, and journalists have stopped short of asking him questions on his potential Iran policy in case he moved into the White House.

In the September op-ed, Biden did not elaborate on his plan to revive the deal, a move that prompted many pundits and news media outlets to speculate over Biden’s next move in relation to Iran. NBC News has introduced a step-by-step plan that could lead to Biden and Iran resolving differences over the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – within a few months.

Citing former U.S. officials and European diplomats, NBC reported on Saturday that rather than removing sanctions all at once or Iran returning immediately to full compliance, a more likely scenario could see an incremental approach over a period of three or four months. It also said that a first step could have Iran freeze its nuclear work, in return for some level of sanctions relief. Further steps could see Iran eventually return to compliance and all the nuclear-related sanctions lifted.

But this step by step plan is easier said than done because the Trump administration has chipped away at nuclear-related sanctions in such a way that makes efforts to lift them irrelevant because most of these sanctions were reimposed under counterterrorism authority. The Trump administration did so mainly to make it difficult for a Biden administration to go soft on Iran.

But some believe that Biden still has the authority to lift all-nuclear related sanctions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has recently said that Biden still can remove these sanctions with few executive orders.

“If Mr. Biden becomes president of the United States and moves into the White House, he can repeal all of them with three executive orders. It is just a rumor that the next U.S. president will not be able to lift some of the U.S. JCPOA-related sanctions,” Zarif told the Iran newspaper last week.

The foreign minister was responding to claims that Biden would not be able to lift the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

He added, “The United States cannot use domestic law to justify its non-fulfillment of its international obligations. No country in the world can use domestic tools to not fulfill its international obligations.”

Apart from sanctions, Biden would likely face pressure from many foreign leaders to include some thorny issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its influence in the region. These pressures are not only coming from leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, but also from Washington’s European allies, particularly France which has called for negotiations over Iran’s missile program and its regional activities on many occasions.

On Thursday, the French presidency called for broader negotiation with Iran that includes Iran’s regional role and its missiles, according to an Asharq Al-Aawsat report. According to the report, a French official pointed out in a press briefing on Thursday that the Iranian nuclear program has reached a dangerous stage, and that would not be the case if Iran continued to respect its obligations stipulated in the 2015 nuclear agreement. The official also said any subsequent negotiations with Tehran should expand to include the ballistic missile program, regional policy, and what he called “interference in the affairs of other countries.”

On the other hand, Iran has strongly rejected the calls for negotiations over its missiles. Alireza Salimi, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s presiding board, said on Saturday that the missile program and regional issues are Iran’s red line that will not be included in the JCPOA.

“The JCPOA is not going to change, but there are requirements that must be considered because the deal cannot be changed and the negotiations on the JCPOA are over,” the lawmaker told the Islamic Consultative Assembly News Agency (ICANA).

Sohrab Gilani, another Iranian lawmaker, also echoed the same red line, saying it is impossible to negotiate over Iran’s missile. He even warned that the Iranian Parliament will dismiss Zarif if he “makes a new commitment for” Iran.

Mahmoud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, a member of the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, also struck a defiant tone, saying that “Iran’s missile and defense capability are not negotiable at all.”

“When the Americans equip illegitimate regimes with nuclear weapons, sell unconventional weapons to countries in the region, and ignore some countries' suspicious nuclear activities, they can no longer ban Iran from having conventional weapons. This is impossible,” Abbaszadeh Meshkini asserted.

Of course, Biden is yet to call for negotiations over Iran’s missile program but he implied in the mid-September op-ed that he will rejoin the nuclear deal as “a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” These “follow-on” negotiations could well be intended to pave the way for broader talks over Iran’s missiles.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a possible secretary of state in a Biden administration, said on Friday he would only support returning to the nuclear deal if there were a path to limit Tehran’s missile program and support for regional proxies, according to Reuters.

Asked if he would support a return to the JCPOA, Coons told Reuters: “not without some clear path towards addressing the missile program and support for proxies.”

Regardless of how he might approach the Iranian missiles, Biden will likely face a bumpy road or one full of potholes if he decides to reengage Iran, given America’s internal political and social divides.

Trump still refuses to accept the election results and keeps insisting that he has won the election despite Biden being widely touted as the winner.

Democrats have lost some seats in the House of Representatives and are about to become a minority in the Senate. The outcome of two runoff races in Georgia on January 5 will decide whether Republicans retain their majority in the Senate.

In light of these facts, if Biden moves to rejoin the JCPOA or negotiate a new one with Iran, he will need the support of a skeptical U.S. Congress. Therefore, it is very that Biden would put the Iran issue on hold at least for a while to address more urgent internal issues such as combating the coronavirus pandemic and drawing up plans for economic recovery.

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