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Joe Biden must elaborate his Iran policy

Tony Blinken, a likely candidate for the post of national security adviser, has said that the U.S. would return to the JCPOA only after Iran fulfills its commitments under the nuclear agreement.

Analysis | Middle East

Since Donald Trump became president in 2017, U.S.-Iran relations have steadily deteriorated. This downward trend in relations accelerated following the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in May 2018.

The United States followed with the imposition of new sanctions, on the sale of Iranian oil as well as on many other sectors of its economy and a number of specific individuals. In fact, no part of the Iranian economy has escaped U.S. sanctions.

Even the spread of Coronavirus, which to date has claimed more than 20,000 Iranian lives, did not move the Trump administration to relent on its maximum pressure campaign on Iran and allow the country to import more medicine.

Initially, Iran responded by what it has characterized as “strategic patience” and tried to convince the European signatories of the JCPOA to take actions to ease the economic and financial difficulties caused by new U.S. sanctions. Iran even reacted cautiously to the U.S. killing of General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds force.

This strategy did not pay off. Therefore, to impose a cost on Trump’s policy, Iran began step-by-step increases in the level of its enriched uranium, albeit within the range permitted by the JCPOA. Despite Iran’s patience and caution, the U.S. augmented pressures on Tehran and tried to extend the U.N. arms embargo on Iran. This effort failed at the U.N. Security Council, with even key U.S. allies — the U.K., Germany, and France — abstaining.

The U.S. failure at the Security Council showed the depth of other nations’ disapproval of a U.S. Iran policy based only on pressure and without any incentives, which could encourage Iran to compromise.

Finally, Secretary Pompeo attempted to force the reimposition of U.N. sanctions by invoking the JCPOA’s “snapback” mechanism — but due to the U.S. departure from the JCPOA, this was roundly rejected as illegitimate. Mike Pompeo, however, has declared that sanctions will return on September 20, with or without U.N. approval.

Democratic response

Despite the Trump administration’s ramping up of its anti-Iran rhetoric and actions, the Democrats’ criticism of these policies has remained rather muted. Their main criticism has been that Trump’s policies have failed to bring the Iranian government down, to force it to accept U.S. demands, or to reduce Tehran’s nefarious activities in the Middle East. Instead, they say, the Trump administration’s policies have isolated the U.S. internationally.

Most Democrats have not mentioned once the human cost of U.S. sanctions, even after the COVID-19 crisis hit Iran. Nor have they presented concrete plans on how they would do things differently. In short, their approach to the Iran issue has been long on criticism and short on better alternatives.

When talking more specifically, Vice President Biden’s foreign policy advisers’ statements have been eerily close to the Trump administration’s positions. On the JCPOA, despite the general expectation that a Biden administration would rejoin the agreement, a careful reading of some of Vice President Biden’s advisers’ statements shows that this outcome cannot be counted on.

For example, Tony Blinken, a likely candidate for the post of national security adviser, has said that the U.S. would return to the JCPOA only after Iran fulfills its commitments under the nuclear agreement. One assumes that he means that Iran has to reverse increases in the level of its enriched uranium before the U.S. rejoins the agreement. Moreover, according to him, in the interim, all sanctions would remain in place.

Iran is unlikely to agree to this condition. Tehran increased the levels of uranium enrichment in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of new sanctions. Given the U.S. record on the JCPOA, Iran would not walk back from these measures without the simultaneous U.S. return to the JCPOA and some reduction in sanctions.

Blinken has also said that the U.S. would want to negotiate a longer and better agreement with Iran. But he is silent on what he means by “better.” Does he mean denying Iran the right to enrichment as initially the U.S. insisted on? Does he mean that a new agreement should also cover the Iranian missiles and its regional activities?

If this interpretation is correct, then no one should except any progress in resolving the standoff with Iran under a Biden presidency. Iran would not give up the right to enrichment, nor would it give up its missiles, except within a broader regional arms reduction plan, since missiles are its primary deterrent capability.

Other Biden advisers, notably Jake Sullivan, while emphasizing diplomacy, have talked of maintaining pressure on Tehran.

Limits of diplomacy

It seems that Biden advisers believe that diplomacy can resolve issues virtually on its own. But this is not so. Diplomacy succeeds If there is a willingness to compromise and give and take on the part of both parties. But if it is used just to deliver ultimatums, even if politely and softly, then it generally fails.

President Obama succeeded in reaching an agreement with Iran because he was willing to compromise and give incentives to Iran as well as demand concessions . But reading Blinken, one does not see much readiness for compromise or willingness to offer incentives.

This interpretation might not be correct, and we can hope that it is not. But if these statements reflect Vice President Biden’s views and inclinations, then there would not be much hope for a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations.

A more productive way to approach Iran under a new administration would be for the U.S. first to return to the JCPOA and at least partially lift sanctions, while Iran resumes its full compliance and reverses all increases in the levels of its enriched uranium. Gradually, a Biden administration should allow U.S. companies to deal with Iran and thus prepare the way for dialogue on regional and other issues, especially in areas where there might be some convergence of interest between Iran and the U.S.

For any breakthrough to be possible, Iran has to do its share as well. Tehran must realize that, sooner or later, it has to discuss regional issues of concern to the U.S.  and other Western powers. Without such discussions, even if the U.S. returns to the JCPOA, it cannot expect full normal economic relations at regional and international levels.

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