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Lessons learned? Biden’s Trumpian way back to the Iran deal

03 Mar 2021 - 09:14

Recently, President Joe Biden announced that the United States is officially ready to join the co-signatories in talks trying to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) – or the so-called ‘nuclear deal’. Biden’s commitment to reviving the negotiations with Iran has always been a firm part of his election campaign, much to the chagrin of hardliners in both Tehran and Washington.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement, multiple op-eds appeared in the American press which stressed the “unique opportunity” this moment represented, the “strong leverage” that the Americans had built over the past four years, and the apparent “desperation” on the Iranian side. All this would make it not only possible, but imperative to “renegotiate” the terms of the existing nuclear deal.1

His team’s positioning actually seems more Trumpian than they would care to admit

This line of reasoning, built on the premise that the US has somehow emerged from four Trumpian years as a more powerful actor in international diplomacy, is a sign of either naïve optimism or remarkable self-delusion. Neither of these traits will prove to be particularly helpful when it comes to getting the Iranians back to the table and de-escalate what is once again one of the most pressing security concerns in the region.

Biden’s sharp criticism of the irreparable damage to US alliances, reputation and security caused by the administration of Donald Trump was a constant theme in his campaign for the White House.2 However, his team’s positioning actually seems more Trumpian than they would care to admit.

While Biden and his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, have expressed they want to resume diplomatic talks with Tehran, they have already stated that the US will maintain the extra sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear deal, even though it was the US that blew up the deal in the first place.

Moreover, Sullivan has openly emphasised that in his view, even a full reinstatement of the deal would be only a steppingstone to a more far-reaching agreement. This ambitious effort would also ‘solve’ the ballistic missile program.

Additionally, it would limit Iran’s malign activities in the regional proxy wars. This, Sullivan stressed, should be part of a regional diplomatic process that would place Iran at the table with opposing players like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

If anything, the past four years have shown that ‘maximum pressure’ has been counterproductive

While it is laudable to look beyond the nuclear issue, and to strive for a broader diplomatic effort in the region, it is hard to imagine how such a miraculously constructive multi-party diplomatic get-together could materialise without serious incentives for the Iranians. Tehran understands the improbability of such a scenario, which is why the ballistic missile issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Especially now that Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have ‘normalised’ their relations with Iran’s arch-enemy Israel, Tehran’s feeling of strategic isolation has grown even further, which in turn has only reinforced its perceived need for the ballistic missile program.

To assume that the dire economic situation alone would force Tehran to give up its only real strategic protection against what it regards as a hostile regional alliance, is therefore to misunderstand its position. If anything, the past four years have shown that ‘maximum pressure’ has been counterproductive.

In spite of debilitating damage to the Iranian economy, and the consequent suffering of its people, Iran has proven to be a more destructive force in the region than ever before

As a result of maximum pressure and the unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has demonstratively advanced its nuclear program over the past couple of years and significantly increased its ballistic missile capability.

What about the “strong economic leverage” that the US had supposedly built over the past years? In spite of debilitating damage to the Iranian economy, and the consequent suffering of its people, Tehran has not budged. In fact, it has proven to be a more destructive force in the region than ever before.

Moreover, the Iranian presidential election coming up in June this year will probably bring a more hard-line leader to power. As a result, the view that Iran was betrayed by the US, and that diplomatic engagement and security concessions are therefore undesirable and even dangerous, will probably gain more traction in Tehran.

In view of these impeding developments, the first priority for the US should not be to get ahead of itself and hypothesise about far reaching follow up deals. They should simply do everything they can to get Iran to come back to the table in the first place.

As long as they are not at that table yet, it would be wise not to trigger further stubbornness and resistance from an already recalcitrant Iran by speculating about imposing further strategic restrictions down the line. Insisting on a game of chicken is similarly unhelpful.

By rejecting the Iranian proposal, Biden’s team has made a rather baffling misjudgement

The Biden administration’s recent rejection of the Iranian proposal of an EU-coordinated simultaneous return to the deal is therefore particularly unfortunate. This rather elegant diplomatic solution would make the mutual concessions simultaneous instead of sequential.

This solution would satisfy Biden’s compliance condition, while at the same time saving both Tehran and Washington the ‘indignity’ of backing down first. It would have given Biden a quick foreign policy victory, a demonstration of his professed commitment to diplomacy and reconnecting with European allies.3 It would have given Iran the sanctions relief it needs to fight COVID-19, which Biden has said he wants to provide.4

Most importantly, however, it would have been a significant step towards stopping Iran from getting closer to nuclear weapons capability, which is ultimately why we are all here. By rejecting the Iranian proposal, Biden’s team has made a rather baffling misjudgement. A misjudgement that is disappointingly reminiscent of Trump’s own diplomatic ‘strategy’.

Going forward, let us remember that the latter was uninformed, overconfident and bullish. That it has led directly to the situation we now find ourselves in.

And, let us remember that the way out of that situation can therefore only be found by being the very opposite. Taking a more humble approach in such a delicate and high-stake game would be a good way to start.

Auteurs

Goos Hofstee
Research fellow bij Instituut Clingendael