Iran’s nuclear program is Biden’s most important challenge in the Middle East. The P5 + 1 countries managed to sign an agreement with Iran called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program continues peacefully. JCPOA faced a temporary death with Trump’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018. Biden needs to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program in order to address the tense situation in the Middle East, because the root of some of the unrest in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Yemen and Syria, depends on resolving Iran’s nuclear program.
US President Joe Biden had long ago stated in an Op.cit on CNN that he wanted to return to JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal). His foreign minister also spoke of returning to JCPOA if Iran fulfills its obligations. But this does not seem to be simply what is seen. The Trump administration has imposed dozens of sanctions on the Iranian government, both primary and secondary, and the outbreak of the Coronavirus and US health sanctions have disappointed Iranian officials. However, the situation is not entirely bleak, and Biden can persuade Iran to return to JCPOA by pursuing smart policies. In this regard, Biden can have three scenarios against Iran.
Biden’s first scenario is to return to JCPOA without any preconditions. This option may not be useful to Biden because he wants to achieve more from Obama. In addition, the reward for Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East cannot be a return to negotiations without preconditions. Iran has sent a large number of paramilitary forces to Syria, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are present in that country. It is an important defender of the Houthi forces in Yemen, and it has complicated the situation by sending weapons and missiles to Yemen.
Second; Biden returns to JCPOA but he adopts the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran rather than Trump. This is also unlikely because there was a wide-ranging rift between the United States and Europe under Trump because of JCPOA, and Biden does not intend to make Trump’s mistake. In addition, he wants to build a united front against China with the help of his allies, which requires coordination with the Europeans and for this he should relieve himself of the burden of concentrating in the Middle East. Biden wants to be realistic about Iran. He is well aware that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran has not been effective. Iran is not isolated and has the best political relations with China and Russia. Iran plans to sign a 25-year strategic agreement with China, and if the agreement is approved by the Iranian parliament, China will provide more support to Iran. Robert Malley, special assistant for the Middle East under President Barack Obama wrote in Foreign Policy in December 2020 “Sanctions devastated Iran’s economy but achieved little else. Throughout Trump’s presidency, Iran’s nuclear program grew, increasingly unconstrained by the JCPOA. Tehran has more accurate ballistic missiles than ever before and more of them. Nothing suggests that the Iranian government, despite periodic outbursts of popular discontent, is in danger of collapse.” In addition, they know that if the policy of maximum pressure on Iran continues, the chances of the radicals gaining power in the June 2021 presidential election will increase, and nuclear negotiations with the radicals will be more difficult than those of the reformists.
The third scenario is basically a combination of the first and second scenarios. Based on this, it seems that the new US administration will return to JCPOA after gaining concessions from Iran and will lift some of the sanctions on Iran. In this scenario, the starting point for negotiations could be the start of step-by-step negotiations and discussions on less tense issues. Biden faces three challenges in implementing this scenario.
First, Biden must get the approval of the Republican majority to implement this scenario. This does not seem to be impossible because even the Republicans were not satisfied with Trump’s quick departure from JCPOA, so Biden has more room to return to JCPOA. Biden must reassure Republicans that the deal is a prelude to further agreements with Iran on human rights, ballistic missiles and support for terrorist groups. In addition, at least 150 House Democrats have signed a letter expressing support for President-elect Joe Biden’s push to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, a key number of lawmakers that could block congressional attempts to prevent the move.
The second problem with this scenario is the opposition of Israel and Iran’s Arab neighbors. Biden must change the region’s discourse to the satisfaction of Iran’s Arab neighbors. The key to resolving the opposition of Iran’s neighboring countries is in the hands of Saudi Arabia. The two countries currently lack official relations. Saudi Arabia unilaterally severed ties with Iran after a group of radicals attacked the Saudi consulate in Iran. Biden must first mediate for the reconciliation of the two countries. Riyadh and Tehran had good relations with each other during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in Iran, and the relations can be revived. In addition, Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in an endless war in Yemen for six years and is under intense domestic and international pressure to end the war. Due to its high influence among the Houthis, Iran can help Saudi Arabia to leave Yemen with dignity. In the end, it is the problem of the Iranians who want compensation for Trump to leave JCPOA. To do this, Biden must switch to “smart pressure” instead of “maximum pressure.” He launches a united front against Iran in which all parties are present so that US actions are not considered one-sided. In addition, he could resort to a less tense policy to build trust with Iran. For example, “voluntary suspension” in exchange for the “lifting of sanctions”.
Mohammad Salami has a Ph.D. in International Relations. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. His area of expertise is Middle East issues, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the GCC countries. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.