The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

March 2021, No. 96


Bidenís Problem Now

Mr Trump has heaped sanctions on Iran, cutting it off from the world economy.

Will the new president jump back into the nuclear deal with Iran?

The Syrian civil war enters its tenth year. Conflict between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad began on March 15th 2011. The UN estimates that more than 400,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Nearly 13m Syrians have become refugees or displaced people as a result.

IT MAY HAVE looked as though John Kerry had the most difficult task in the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. As he tried to nail down the terms of the agreement, Americaís secretary of state at the time grew so frustrated with his Iranian counterpart that he threatened to walk away from the talks. Their shouting matches became the stuff of legend.

Yet a reasonable case can be made that Joe Biden had a harder job. After the details had been thrashed out, the then vice-president had to sell the deal to Congress. Democrats were sceptical of the accord, under which Iran curbed its nuclear programme and agreed to rigorous inspections in return for the lifting of international sanctions. Republicans were dead against it. In the end, neither the House nor the Senate supported itóbut they did not block it either. Mr Biden had succeeded.

One of the most pressing foreign-policy questions now facing the incoming president will be whether to re-enter the accord, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Donald Trump ditched in 2018. Mr Trump has heaped sanctions on Iran, cutting it off from the world economy. Iran, in turn, has abrogated parts of the deal, spinning centrifuges it said it would not and blowing through limits on enriched uranium. This can be used to make nuclear energyóor, if highly enriched, a bomb. But Iran and the other world powers involved in the JCPOA (Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia) still hold out some hope of reviving it.

Mr Biden does, too. During the campaign he vowed to re-enter the agreement if Iran moves back into compliance. This would be ďa critical downpayment to re-establish US credibility, signalling to the world that Americaís word and international commitments once again mean something,Ē said the candidate. But Mr Biden also promised to strengthen and extend the JCPOAís restrictions, some of which run out in the next four years. The entire thing is due to expire in 2030. Its critics were never happy about these sunset clausesóor the way the deal ignored Iranís ballistic-missile programme and the countryís destabilising activity in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Mr Biden says the worldís renewed faith in America will allow him to pursue diplomatic solutions to these problems. But just getting back into the JCPOA will be hard enough. For a start, America and Iran would have to agree on who moves firstóMr Biden, in lifting sanctions, or the mullahs, in walking back their nuclear work? Moreover, Iran might insist that America lift all the sanctions imposed on it by Mr Trump, including those relating to terrorism. That is unlikely to happen, not least because Iran continues to sponsor attacks on American troops. Mr Biden, for his part, may come to appreciate the leverage that Mr Trumpís sanctions give him when trying to strengthen the deal.

There are other complications, too. Some in the Trump administration hoped that their ďmaximum pressureĒ campaign would lead to regime change. But it merely undermined Iranian politicians willing to reach out to the West, while empowering hardliners, who now control parliament. President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the JCPOA, will be term-limited out of office in 2021. A hardliner will surely win the contest to replace him. That will make life harder for Mr Biden. Ultimately he will have to win over Iranís supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who reluctantly approved the original deal and refused to negotiate with Mr Trump. The parlous state of Iranís economy may leave him little choice but to work with Mr Biden.

So what is most likely to happen? Mr Biden will move first, lifting Mr Trumpís travel ban on Iran, relaxing some of Americaís more symbolic sanctions and helping Iran get the aid it needs to fight covid-19. Both sides will agree to calm things down in the regionó with Iran keeping a tighter leash on its proxies, and America refraining from attacking those groups. That will set the stage for new nuclear talks. Iran will agree to roll back its nuclear programme and Mr Biden will give the mullahs more sanctions relief (prompting another fight with Congress). But he will hold on to much of the economic leverage he has in order to negotiate a beefed-up deal.

Alas, such an accord will prove elusive in 2021. After four years of growing tension, more time will be needed to build trust. But a modest reset in relations between America and Iran will be no bad thing.

Roger McShane: Middle East editor, The Economist


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  March 2021
No. 96