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The view from Tehran on Biden’s pledge to return to the nuclear deal

Joe Biden’s election is set to have major ramifications for the Middle East. President Trump’s policies centered on reneging on the 2015 nuclear deal, piling on sanctions on Iran, and providing unconditional support to U.S. partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Conversely, President-elect Biden ran on a pledge to return to the Iran deal and diplomatically ease regional tensions. But will the Iranians play ball? And will the heightened anti-American politics in Iran even permit a return to the deal?

All indications are that Iran’s position mirrors that of President-elect Biden. Iranian officials have consistently said they would return to compliance with deal’s restrictions on their nuclear program if the United States upholds its sanctions lifting commitments under the accord. While Iranian officials have discussed compensation for damages incurred to the Iranian economy from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, no red line or schedule is timed to those demands.

Iran’s rhetoric on a JCPOA Return

The most authoritative sign that Iran would be open to a “compliance-for-compliance” return to the nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) came from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in September 2019. Khamenei, who is Iran’s ultimate decision maker, laid out Iran’s criteria for new negotiations with the United States at that time, declaring: “When America takes back its words and repents and returns to the nuclear agreement it violated, then with the group of countries that are part of the agreement and talk with Iran, America can also participate.”

President Hassan Rouhani also reiterated Iran’s preference for a clean return to the JCPOA after Biden’s electoral victory became apparent. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has always adhered to its commitments when all sides responsibly implement their commitments and its strategy is constructive engagement with the world,” he said, adding again days later: “Our aim is to lift sanctions and have constructive engagement with the world, and whenever and wherever there is an opportunity for this we will take actions for it.”

Rouhani has also issued new instructions to his ministers in the aftermath of the U.S. election. He asked for a “comprehensive economic, political, social, and foreign plan commensurate with new international developments.” This is contrast to his remarks the previous week, when he said plans were reached for the final nine months of his administration “without consideration for what will happen in America or who will be elected.”

Rhetoric from other Iranian officials reveals that the compensation issue is more likely a desire than a prerequisite for restoring the deal, at least at this stage. Saeed Khatibzadeh, the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, has suggested that demanding compensation may become Iran’s bottom-line if President-elect Biden opts not to follow through on a clean JCPOA return and instead maintains some of his predecessor’s sanctions to try to get a new deal with Iran.

Khatibzadeh said after Biden’s election victory in an interview with the Al-Alam News Network: “America is not in the position to impose conditions on Iran, they caused billions of dollars of damages to the Iranian people.” He added: “The U.S. is fundamentally not in a position to set out conditions for anyone. The U.S. has violated the JCPOA, violated UN Security Council resolution 2231, imposed billions of dollars in damages on the Iranian people, and ended its participation in the JCPOA.” His framing signals that far from giving more concessions to restore what Iran got in the 2015 deal, Iran believes it is positioned to demand more from the United States.

However, Khatibzadeh also made clear that Iran does not intend to attach U.S. compensation as a precondition to Iran returning to compliance with the JCPOA. He cited Khamenei’s 2019 speech and indicated Iran will raise this issue in potential follow-on talks after a JCPOA return, stating: “Based on the instructions of the Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei], America must repent. This means they must first accept what mistakes they made; second, end economic warfare against the Iranian people; third, reverse the path they have been on and implement their commitments; and in the fourth step compensate for the damages.”

The Rouhani administration’s spokesperson, Ali Rabiee, has also breached the topic of compensation. He stated after Biden’s victory that Iran would seek compensation, but like Khatibzadeh did not precondition it to a JCPOA return. Rabiee proclaimed: “A return to the JCPOA and unconditional commitment to all its requirements, is the first step to correcting these [Trump administration] policies.” He added about the compensation issue: “The costs that have been incurred by the Iranian people must be compensated for. This is the right of our nation, to experience the best life in the best environment. We are committed in this regard and our efforts are aimed at achieving this.”

The somewhat equivocal rhetoric from Iranian officials on the compensation issue appears to be motivated by hedging regarding how a Biden administration may approach a JCPOA return as well domestic political considerations. Rouhani, who staked all his political capital on negotiating the nuclear deal with the Obama administration, has been politically eviscerated by Trump’s policies and has little political maneuverability. Rouhani’s hardline detractors are already forceful on the issue of compensation and continue to rule out new negotiations with the United States. Fars News, an outlet close to the Revolutionary Guards, ran a piece after Biden’s victory blasting Rouhani and his allies for wanting to implement “their old slogan of ‘any deal is better than no deal’” in Rouhani’s final months in office. 

Meanwhile, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of the prominent conservative newspaper Kayhan, said after Biden’s win that Rouhani seeks to “impose another catastrophe like the JCPOA on the nation.” Shariatmadari said negotiations with the United States would “never occur” and in bad-faith offered three conditions for a return to the JCPOA: “First lifting all the sanctions, second releasing all [frozen] Iranian assets, third, compensating for the damages than have been incurred by sanctions.”

Establishing goodwill is necessary

The rhetoric from Iranian officials shows just how deteriorated the state of U.S.-Iran relations is after four years of the Trump administration. President Obama’s negotiation of the JCPOA put the two adversaries on a new path and made regular high-level communications between them — once unthinkable — a norm. That has been undone and renewing it will require both sides taking steps to restore a base level of trust necessary for negotiations and cooperation.

Given the United States abandoned the nuclear deal in defiance of its European allies and most of the international community, the ball will be in President-elect Biden’s court on jumpstarting U.S.-Iran diplomacy. The talks and signs coming from Tehran indicate that if Biden delivers on his campaign promise of returning to the JCPOA, Iran will return as well and broader dialogue is possible. This is the most feasible option and appears to be politically viable for Biden and Rouhani. However, if Biden attaches conditions to a JCPOA return, Iran is ready to play hardball, and has grievances and demands that will make a diplomatic breakthrough an even more challenging undertaking that might be unattainable or, at minimum, demand substantial diplomatic energy deep into a Biden administration. 

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