By Azin Sahabi

The crux of Biden’s foreign policy: JCPOA or East Asia?

February 15, 2021 - 11:20

TEHRAN- Since President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20, returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has been quite controversial in various terms. The barriers for Biden’s administration to revive the JCPOA have been discussed extensively.

In fact, there exist ingrained obstacles to reviving the JCPOA by the U.S. in terms of lifting sanctions. These deeply rooted barriers are sanctions that are tied to the issue of terrorism as a policy that Ronald Reagan’s administration embarked on. It identifies Iran as a terrorist hub under American law.  Anticipating Biden’s likely intention to reenter the JCPOA and offering some sanctions relief to Iran, this policy was intensified by Trump’s team in a bid to make it difficult for Joe Biden to lift Iran sanctions.

Undoubtedly, the Biden administration is fully aware of the complicated structure of U.S. multidimensional sanctions against Tehran during the last four decades. Also, nearly all top U.S. think tanks have explicitly and implicitly recommended the White House not to reenter the deal. Those right-leaning neoconservative think tanks overtly warn the Oval Office against rejoining the deal, keep all sanctions in place and follow the exact footprints of Trump’s administration towards Iran.

 On the other hand, some think tanks, which are categorized as liberal, highlight several political and technical obstacles and describe the likely process too demanding to be realistic.

Recent publications by Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the Atlantic Council on the issue are worth mentioning. In fact, the Donald Trump administration sanctioned numerous major Iranian economic entities such as the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) under the label of “terrorism” to consolidate these kinds of sanctions as the centerpiece of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran.

In this regard, Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service and another fellow at the Quincy Institute, have commented on “terrorism sanctions on Iran and the path forward” anddismantling the ‘sanctions wall’ myth”, respectively.

“Analyzing terrorism sanctions on Iran and the path forward”

In an analysis published on Feb 11, 2021, by the Atlantic Council, Katzman, a top researcher for the U.S. Congress who regularly writes reports titled “Iran sanctions”, stresses that one of the most challenging barriers which the Biden administration faces in terms of his stated intention to return to  the JCPOA is “how to ‘de-list’ from U.S. sanctions not only those Iranian and Iran-related economic entities de-listed in 2016—when the JCPOA went into effect—but also economic entities sanctioned by the Trump administration – even if the economic entities have been designated as terrorist.”

The author, who accuses Iran of supporting terrorist groups in the region and conducting a nuclear weapon program and describes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, not to mention “malign activities” of Tehran, argues that if the Biden administration revokes terrorism designations of Iranian economic entities, the Oval office’s commitment to counter “terrorism” will be questioned.

It is worth mentioning that Katzman’s recommendations are in accordance with John Kerry’s claims in early 2016. In an interview with CNBC in Davos on January 21, 2016, he claimed that some of the money Iran received in sanctions relief would go to groups considered terrorists and said: “I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists.”

Katzman analyses the JCPOA through the lens of the measures that the U.S. has implemented against Iran under the label of “counter-terrorism” and emphasizes that one of the main pillars of U.S. approach towards West Asia is deterring Iran effectively in terms of gaining regional influence. Thus, he stresses that if Biden considers lifting terrorism sanctions against the long list of Iranian economic entities as a necessary step for reviving the JCPOA, this will undermine U.S. policies that could roll back Iran’s influence in the region.

In this context, the Quincy Institute has commented on the issue, too. 

A myth to reconsider: Dismantling “sanctions wall”

Underlining the debate, the Quincy Institute on February 12, 2020, speculated on how Iranian and American parties can come back into compliance with the deal and what barriers stand in the path forward. To describe the obstacles Biden faces, the article points to the “sanctions wall” that architects of the Trump administration’s Iran policy designed to target those Iranian entities with terrorism designations. In fact, those entities were the subject to nuclear-related sanctions relief under the Obama administration but as the previous administration declared: “this double layer could create a ‘sanctions wall of political and market deterrence’ to undermine a future administration’s ability to ease or lift sanctions.”

The institute also mentions that supporters of the “sanctions wall” at the U.S. Congress did not miss the opportunity to question Anthony Blinken’s assessment of “terrorism sanctions” on Iran’s financial and oil sectors. Senator Ted Cruz, a vocal opponent of the JCPOA, challenged Biden’s pick for the Department of State at a Senate confirmation hearing and asked if he “believe[s] it is in America’s national security interests to lift those terrorism sanctions and to allow billions of dollars to go once again to funding terrorist activities?”

Similarly, Jim Inhofe, a senior Republican senator who advocates “maximum pressure” campaign, detailed in an op-ed for Foreign Policy how he and his partners in Congress intend to make it difficult for Biden to reenter the JCPOA.

In fact, as Biden himself said, he will not lift “non-nuclear” sanctions, a move consistent with what the architects of Trump’s “sanction wall” support.

Biden’s critical priority: JCPOA or East Asia?

Although Iran definitely remains one of the main issues on Biden’s foreign policy agenda, perhaps the Americans do not perceive Iran’s nuclear issue as the priority to be addressed urgently at the Oval Office. In fact, it seems a somehow similar strategy is already arranged in terms of how to deal with Iran, and maybe nothing fundamentally new will come up.

Apparently, articulating a new American strategy towards East Asia, particularly China, would be the most difficult challenge facing the Biden administration in laying out U.S. foreign policy goals in the foreseeable future.

Reviewing major and long policy papers and reports on East Asia and the related security, economic and political interests of the U.S. in this geostrategic region can further reinforce the concept that China, not Iran, would be placed high on the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

For instance, the Atlantic Council has published issue briefs and strategy papers in which detailed road maps towards East Asian countries including Pakistan, India, and mostly China are put forward for Biden’s administration.

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