December 15, 2020 - 10:23
Biden Iran policy may prove an exact replica of that of Trump

TEHRAN – As Joe Biden's foreign policy team mull over their options on the Iran nuclear deal, experts and Iranian officials warn that any attempt to use Donald Trump’s sanctions as leverage or delay the lifting of these sanctions will only complicate the situation around the 2015 nuclear deal.

During his election campaign, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden professed that he will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal – officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in case he wins the United State presidential election in early November. He won the election but he largely refrained from drawing up his blueprint for rejoining the nuclear deal. Instead, he vaguely said that he still believes that the White House should return to the JCPOA, but he also said that this return would be hard, remarks that have been widely interpreted as a tactic to back down on his professed promise to rejoin the Iran deal. 

In a September op-ed for CNN, Biden wrote, “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.”

In early December, nearly a month after the U.S. election, Biden commented on his Iran policy for the first time after the election, saying that he still stands by his views on the nuclear deal that were articulated in the mid-September op-ed. 

In an interview with The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman, Biden addressed a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, including the nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump quit on May 8, 2018. 

Asked whether he still stands by his views on the deal that he expressed in the op-ed for CNN, Biden answered, “It’s going to be hard, but yeah.”

Biden reiterated this position in a recent interview with CNN in which he said that he thinks he will have “very difficult” issues dealing with Iran.

“He [Trump] has pulled out to get something tougher, and what have they done? They've increased the ability for them to have nuclear material. They're moving closer to the ability to be able to have enough material for a nuclear weapon. And there's the missile issues,” Biden said, adding, “All those things, I think, are going to be very difficult. But I know one thing: We cannot do this alone. And that's why we have to be part of a larger group, dealing not only with Iran, but with Russia, with China and a whole range of other issues.”

These remarks fueled speculation that Biden might renege on his campaign promise of rejoining the JCPOA or seek to use Trump’s sanctions on Iran as leverage to secure a longer and better deal with Iran, the very same deal that Trump failed to reach. 

Press reports suggest that Biden may have already reneged on his professed promise. Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom reported on Monday that several advisers to the future U.S. president have been pushing for a new approach that favors embracing some of President Donald Trump's “maximum pressure” policy components. 

According to the newspaper, among some of Biden's advisers, there is a belief that adopting a conciliatory tone toward Iran would be counterproductive. Citing officials in Biden’s orbit, it added that it would be a mistake to squander the gains of the outgoing administration by turning back the clock in one fell swoop and returning to the deal along the terms set by the official document. 

“Instead, they call for using the tough U.S. sanctions that have been imposed over the past several years as leverage against Iran so that it agrees to amend the nuclear deal,” Israel Yayom claimed. 

But this strategy was strongly contested by experts, who say that using the Trump sanctions as leverage won’t work with Iran. 

“Punishing the target country regardless of its behavior does not create leverage; it destroys it. That’s what the Trump administration has done by reneging on its obligations under the JCPOA, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, even though Iran was fully complying with its own obligations,” wrote Paul Pillar, a former U.S. intelligence officer, in an essay published by Responsible Statecraft. 

He added, “The current suggestion about the Biden administration trying to exploit the Trump-imposed sanctions is merely the latest version of a notion heard in this country throughout the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic of Iran — that by exerting pressure just a little longer, the Iranian rulers will cry uncle over whatever issue we want them to cry uncle about. That notion has not worked for the last four decades. It clearly has not worked over the last four years. There is no reason to expect it to work over the next four.”

According to Pillar, some American voices are pushing the Biden administration into taking advantage of the Trump sanctions by using them as leverage to somehow squeeze out of Tehran an agreement more favorable to the United States than the JCPOA.

Biden and his foreign policy team seem to be playing into the hands of these voices by refusing to articulate their Iran policy and announce the U.S. return to the JCPOA. While Iran has made it clear that the U.S. return to its commitments under the JCPOA does not need any new negotiations and thus easy, Biden has been suggesting that the U.S. rejoining the Iran deal would be hard, a claim that raises serious questions about Biden’s strategy toward Iran. Will Biden use Trump's legacy of sanctions and coercion to extract new concessions from Iran? Will Biden seek to delay the lifting of sanctions in an attempt to wait until Iran blinks first?

These questions are particularly important given Biden’s silence on the JCPOA. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said in recent days that the U.S. return to the deal does not take any time and it can be done easily and without new negotiations. 

“The return to the JCPOA does not need any time and negotiations, but will. That illiterate businessman [Trump] scribbled a paper and announced his withdrawal from the nuclear deal. The next one [Biden] can take a paper to sign so as to return. It only needs a signature,” Rouhani said in a cabinet session last week. 

However, it seems the Biden team does not see things that way, a move that prompted President Rouhani to warn against setting preconditions for U.S. return to the JCPOA. Speaking in a press conference on Monday, Rouhani said Iran has no precondition for the U.S. return to the JCPOA and Iran will also accept no preconditions. He also said that other issues such as Iran’s missile program and its influence in the region are irrelevant to the JCPOA. 

The Iranian president also pointed to the speculation that Biden may continue Trump’s legacy by not lifting sanctions quickly. 

“The government will not allow some people to want to delay the end of the sanctions. Some people want to delay the end of the sanctions. We will not agree to this even for an hour and a minute and we will stand against them. Sanctions must be broken, this is the right of the people. America must return to its previous commitments, and we have said many times that if everyone returns to their full commitments, we will return to our full commitments,” the president noted, according to state news agency IRNA.

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