Biden’s newest foreign policy challenge: Iranian and Israeli hardliners

Introduction

After the triumph of Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 Iranian Presidential election, the US and other countries, especially the E3 (the UK, Germany, and France), which are party to the JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal would have paid close attention to his statements, which had a clear anti-West slant. Raisi has made it unequivocally clear that while he is not opposed to the deal per se, he will not accept any diktats from the West with regard to Iran’s nuclear program or its foreign policy in the Middle East.

In addition to Raisi’s more stridently anti-US stance, at least in public, what is likely to make negotiations between Iran and the US tougher is the recent attack on an oil tanker, off Oman, operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London based company owned by an Israeli shipping magnate, Eyal Ofer. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did not take long blame Iran for the attack, referring to this as an example of ‘Iranian terrorism’ (current Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s policy vis-à-vis Iran is no different from that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu). After Raisi’s win in June, Israel had reiterated its opposition to negotiating with Iran, and the Israeli PM termed the election of hardliner Raisi as a ‘wake up call’ for the rest of the world. Two crew members — a Romanian and a Briton, were killed in the attack.

While the Vienna negotiations between Iran and other signatories to JCPOA (the US is participating indirectly) have made significant progress, Raisi could ask for them to start afresh, in which case the US has said that it may be compelled to take strong economic measures, such as imposing sanctions on companies facilitating China’s oil imports from Iran (ever since the Biden administration has taken over there has been a jump in China’s oil purchases from Iran).

It would be pertinent to point out that pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in the US, as well as apprehensions of Israelis themselves with regard to the JCPOA, were cited as one of the reasons for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the Biden administration’s inability to clinch an agreement with the Hassan Rouhani administration. While at one stage the Biden administration seemed to be willing to get on board the JCPOA unconditionally, it is not just domestic pressures, but also the fervent opposition of Israel to the JCPOA which has acted as a major impediment. While GCC countries Saudi Arabia and UAE were fervently opposed to the JCPOA and also influenced the Trump administration’s aggressive Iran policy, in recent months they have been working towards improving ties with Iran, and have softened their stance.

Washington should refrain from taking any harsh economic steps

At a time when the Iranian economy is in doldrums (the currency has depreciated and inflation has risen as a result of the imposition of sanctions and of Covid-19), Washington would not want to take any steps which result in further exacerbating the anti-US feeling in Iran. While commenting on the attack on the Israeli managed tanker, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming

There is no doubt that the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran did not really benefit the US, and Joe Biden during the presidential campaign had been critical of the same. Reduction of tensions with Iran is also important given the current situation in Afghanistan, and Tehran’s importance given its clout vis-à-vis the Taliban.

US allies and their role

US allies themselves are looking forward to the revival of the JCPOA, so that they can revive economic relations with Iran. This includes the E3 (Germany, the UK, and France) and India. As mentioned earlier, GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, which in recent years have had strained ties with Iran, are seeking to re-work their relations with Tehran as a result of the changing geopolitical environment in the Middle East.

The role of US allies who have a good relationship with both Israel and Iran is important in calming down tempers, and ensuring that negotiations for revival of JCPOA are not stalled.

Conclusion

It is important for Biden to draw lessons from Trump’s aggressive Iran policy. Biden should not allow Israel or any other country to dictate its policy vis-à-vis Iran, as this will not only have an impact on bilateral relations but have broader geopolitical ramifications. Any harsh economic measures vis-à-vis Iran will push Tehran closer to China, while a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Tehran may open the space for back channel negotiations.

Raisi on his part needs to be flexible and realize that the most significant challenge for Tehran is the current state of its economy. Removal of US sanctions will benefit the Iranian economy in numerous ways but for this he will need to be pragmatic and not play to any gallery.

What the rise of Raisi means for regional security and nuclear bargains

Introduction 

The triumph of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in the recently-held Iranian Presidential election is likely to pose a challenge with regard to the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear Agreement (in 2019, US had imposed sanctions on him for human rights violations). Raisi, who has been serving as Iran’s Chief Justice since March 2019, will take over as President in August 2021 and will be replacing Hassan Rouhani, a moderate.

While he has not opposed the JCPOA in principle, Raisi is likely to be a tougher negotiator than his predecessor. This was evident from his first news conference, where he said that Iran will not kowtow to the West by limiting its missile capabilities or addressing concerns with regard to Iran’s role in the region’s security. In the news conference, he also stated that he will not be meeting US President Joe Biden.

The US has been guarded in its response to the election result. Commenting on the verdict and its likely impact on the Iran nuclear deal, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated: 

The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader, and he was the same person before this election as he is after the election

Iran-China relations in recent years  

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Raisi on his triumph, describing Iran and China as ‘comprehensive strategic partners.’ The Chinese President said that he was willing to work with Iran on a host of issues. Only last year, Iran and China had signed a 25-year strategic comprehensive agreement which sought to give a strong boost not just to economic ties between Tehran and Beijing, but security ties as well. One of the reasons cited for Tehran moving closer to Beijing has been the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran-P5+1 agreement/JCPOA in 2018 and its lack of flexibility. From Beijing’s point of view, the deal was important not just for fulfilling its oil needs (according to the agreement, China would receive Iranian oil at a cheaper price). 

While there is no doubt that the Biden administration has made attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal in recent months and the Vienna negotiations in which US has been indirectly involved, a solution does not seem in sight in the short run given that Raisi will replace Rouhani only in August. Also, if both sides stick to their stated position things are likely to get tougher. Interestingly, a senior Iranian official, presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, indicated that the US had agreed to move over one thousand Trump-era sanctions, including those on insurance, oil, and shipping. 

The JCPOA has taken a break at the Vienna talks for some days and, commenting on this, Mikhail Ulyanov, permanent representative to Russia, said:

The task is to make full use of this break to ensure that all participants get final political instructions on the remaining controversial issues

Obstacles  

While many Democrats and strategic analysts had been arguing that the Biden administration needed to show greater urgency and move away from stated positions with regard to a return to the JCPOA, opposition from not just Republicans but hawks within his party made any such agreement impossible.  

Apart from domestic opposition, Biden will also need to deal with pressure from Israel. While it is true that GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, earlier opposed to the deal have been seeking to improve ties with Iran and have also softened their opposition to the deal, Israel has been opposed to JCPOA. The recently-elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s stand vis-à-vis JCPOA is the same as Benjamin Netanyahu’s. After the Iranian election, the Israeli PM said: 

Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with

Role of China and Russia  

It would be pertinent to point out that, days before the election, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated that the US should remove sanctions vis-à-vis Iran. Given the fact that Raisi is anti-West, it is likely that China and Russia could play an important role in the revival of JCPOA.  

While there is merit in the Biden administration’s approach of removing sanctions against Iran in a stage-wise manner, since this may be politically more feasible, Washington needs to think innovatively and bear in mind that a rigid approach vis-à-vis Tehran will only make anti-Western sentiment in Iran more pronounced, and leave it with no choice but to move closer to China. GCC countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been working towards resolving tensions with Iran, could also play an important role in talks between the Biden administration and a dispensation headed by Raisi.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration clearly has its task cut out. While negotiating with Raisi may not be easy, the fact that he has support of the supreme leader could be favourable, and the US could also use some of its allies to engage with the new administration.