The Biden Administration and the looming question of Iran

Nader is a third-year Politics student at King’s College London from Italy and Iran. His geopolitical interests include Middle Eastern security and regional proxy conflicts.

In May 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled out from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reinstated sanction on Iran regardless of the Iran being in full compliance with the deal’s nuclear restrictions. With President Biden’s recent inauguration as the USA’s 46th President, there is hope for America’s return to global cooperation and the international stage, and the possible reversal of anti-establishment foreign policy elements of the previous Trump administration. With Biden having been Vice President to the previous Obama administration, his attitude to the Iran Nuclear deal is significantly different from that of the Trump administration. In fact, Biden, had promised to quickly re-join the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), stating that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would re-join the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded, welcoming the initiative, calling an “opportunity” for the United States to “compensate for its previous mistakes and return to the path of adherence to international commitments.” Nevertheless, despite these mutually optimistic claims, returning to the initial agreement will possibly be very complicated, if not impossible.

First of all, both President Rouhani and President Biden face strong domestic pressures. While Rouhani appears to have the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to compliance with the JCPOA, he faces significant opposition from conservative factions in government, especially in the wake of an upcoming election in June 2021. As such, the President of the Republic is expected to demand a high price to return to the deal, including compensations for America abandoning the deal. While Iranian negotiators know that the United States would never agree to provide such financial compensation, Robert Einhorn , a previous nuclear arms-control negotiator now at the Brookings Institution, stated that “they may stake out a tough negotiating position, especially given the dynamic of the upcoming election”. Mr. Einhorn suggested that Iran would demand for not only the removal of nuclear-related sanctions, but also sanctions regarding human rights violations and for the support of terrorist groups. This would be technically as well as politically difficult for the Biden administration to achieve. In fact, Biden, on the other hand, needs to face Congress. He will need to convince virtually all Republicans, who have always been highly sceptical of the deal, as well as some influential Democrats, such as Senators Bob Menendez and Chuck Schumer.

Moreover, although Biden’s election has increased the possibility of US returning to the deal, the Trump administration still had firm control of US foreign policy towards Iran even after November. This has led to Trump administration introducing new sanctions against Iranian companies, as of late January, as part of a continuing series of measures aimed at increasing pressure on Iran before the takeover of the Biden Administration . In addition, in its last months, the Trump administration had also been trying to further limit Iran’s support for proxy militias in the Middle East by selling more sophisticated weapons to Arab Monarchies, further antagonising relationships between the two countries.

Lastly, the upcoming Biden Presidency will have to consider regional players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who will be wary of the Administration’s first steps regarding the USA’ return to the deal. More precisely, team Biden will have to consider how this will fit in the USA’s larger regional strategy, especially by needing to take into account the recently-agreed Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab nations, which reinforces the notion of Iran as a common threat to the stability and territorial integrity to the members of the accord.

Such challenges help one visualise the extent to which the Biden administration will differ from Trump’s in this regard, and what the said implications may materialise as we can attempt to predict how the Biden administration will vary from Trump’s, and what will the implications of this be.

Firstly, while some commentators view Biden’s “commitment for commitment” approach as unrealistic, considering the issues we highlighted above, Iran has consistently indicated that their nuclear activities are reversible. Such activities being the ramping up of low-enriched uranium production beyond the parameters of the JCPOA, in response to the US breaches of the deal. This indicating that such actions were more aimed at threatening rather than for making progress for the country’s nuclear programme.

As such, Biden’s approach would differ from the Trump administration, which instead wanted to replace the 2015 deal with a “new and better deal” that would aim at regulating the entirety of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear, regional and missile activities . Biden’s commitment to deal is also best exemplified in his “Why America Must Lead Again” piece in which he states that he would re-join the agreement and America’s “his renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it”.

As such, Biden will most likely pursue cooperation with European power regarding Iran’s regional activities that is more pragmatic than that of the Trump administration. While the Deal’s E3, France, Germany and Britain- initially pursued negotiations with Trump in order to establish consensus and a way forward for supplemental agreements, this was stopped with Trump’s withdrawal of the deal in May 2018. Baroness Catherine Ashton, who served as the EU’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy, and the led the JCPOA’s P5+1 talks, indicated that one of the most important things that the Biden Administration needs to do if it wished to re-enter the agreement is to “shore up the team”. By this she means that the Administration needs to speak to the individual leaders of each country from the 2015 deal and ask them to get their Foreign Ministers ready to meet with the new US Secretary of State in order to decide who will lead the negotiations.

Regarding the concerns of America’s regional allies in the Middle East, the Biden Administration is more likely to conduct a more balanced foreign policy with these countries, allowing the USA to more easily commit to reinstating the deal. For example, on the anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Biden asserted that “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil. America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners”.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the USA is also expected to weaken due to the Biden’s administration’s greater focus on domestic issues and issues relating to climate change. As Jim Krane Wallace S. Wilson, fellow for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute told S&P Global Platts, has highlighted “the US is starting to de-emphasize the strategic importance of the Middle East, ramping down involvement to move it down the agenda. The focus is on other things like East Asia, China, India and climate change, and the NATO alliance”, as well as focusing on “the pandemic and the recovery of the domestic economy”. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has started a hiring spree for lobbyists in Washington as a result of Biden’s rolling back of the Trump-era relationship. As such, while ensuring that Gulf countries and Israel are able to defend themselves against Iran, the Biden administration will most likely gradually “right-size” foreign policy in the region, to accommodate Iranian-American ambitions for further co-operation.

Nevertheless, despite the change that the Biden administration is set to bring, there still remains the issue that someone like Trump could return in 2024, and once again pull the US out of the agreement. This remains the case even if the deal is instituted as a treaty with the support of the American Senate, instead of an executive agreement. Thus, such uncertainty regarding long term commitment from the American side, presents “ a real test for any deal, but any Iranian negotiator… will have to go back to go back and sell that to the Supreme Leader… [which is] very tricky to do”, according to Amir Handjani, a fellow at the Quincy Institute. As such, despite the current initial green light from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this issue is set to endure in the long-term.

In conclusion, although the Biden administration presents a much better change for Iran and the USA to re-establish an understanding regarding the nuclear issue, various domestic and geopolitical concerns still need to be addressed from both sides. Only the time will tell how the Biden administration will act to address such obstacles, and how the Rouhani administration will respond as a result.


What is the probability that the risk will materialize? – 2/3

The likelihood that another nuclear understanding will not materialise faces some significant challenges. However, Biden’s commitment to international co-operation and the pragmatic nature of Rouhani’s government, could well allow for success, at least in the short term.

What is the predicted size of impact? 3/3

The impact of America re-joining the Nuclear agreement has significant impacts for both the Iranian economy, which will experience a boost to its oil revenues, as well as for the Rouhani presidency, which would see his domestic support increase. Moreover, as outlined in the article, the Deal is set to have wide-ranging geopolitical impact in the Middle East, due to the strategic concerns of Middle Eastern countries towards Iran’s nuclear programme.

What is the predicted speed of onset? 1/3

While being an important foreign policy concern of the Biden administration, the US government will most likely be more focused on dealing with domestic issues caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Moreover, the deal still has many new details that need to be addressed before implementation can be achieved.

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? 3/3

Various actors are significantly going to be involved in different extents. Not only does the deal rely on the support of various international partners (P5+1), but it will also face strong opposition from American allies, most notably Israel, who is set to pressure domestic American actors against the deal as it has done before.

What is the probability of spill-over? 3/3

There are vast possibilities of spill over, both geopolitically and economically. The deal could possibly lead to further American-Iranian co-operation, as well as significantly impacting the relationship between the USA and its allies in the Middle East. Economically, it could signal the opening of Iranian markets to important foreign investment.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 12/15 (Elevated Risk)

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