On Joe Biden and America’s relationship with Iran

One of the important foreign policy priorities of President-elect Joe Biden, which will have an impact not just on the US but a number of its allies in the West – such as the UK, Germany, France (the E3), India, and Japan – is Washington’s ties with Iran. 

It will be interesting to see the ultimate shape which Biden’s Iran foreign policy takes place. Days before the announcement of the election result, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, in an interview to CBS news, that Iran viewed the statements emanating from the Biden camp positively, though Iran would have to wait and watch. 

While commenting on the Biden-Harris victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Said Rouhani

Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms 

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – Iran/P5+1 agreement in 2018, had been criticized by allies, including the E3, who were signatories to the agreement. 

President-elect Joe Biden has also unequivocally stated that he is open to the US rejoining JCPOA, subject to the fact that Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement. Biden, who also served as Vice President under Obama (who had fervently backed the JCPOA), has been critical of the Trump Administration’s approach towards Iran, dubbing it as a failure. During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden, along with many US allies, had also advocated that the US relax Iranian sanctions temporarily on humanitarian grounds. 

In recent months, Washington has imposed more sanctions on Iran, the latest instance being sanctions imposed days before the election on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, and its oil-tanker subsidiary. The reason cited for sanctions is the financial support provided by these companies to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It would be pertinent to point out that the US was unable to snapback Iranian sanctions which had been removed under the JCPOA – UNSC members blocked US attempts. While there is skepticism with regard to the revival of the deal given that incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself is likely to face elections soon, and there is limited room for manuevre given that hardliners in Iran (whose clout has increased as a result of Trump’s Iran policy), are averse to any engagement with the West. Senior Iranian officials have also stated that they will not accept any conditionalities from Washington.

Biden may have fundamental differences in his approach vis-à-vis the Middle East as compared to Trump for a variety of reasons. 

First, Biden is likely to be less confrontationalist vis-à-vis Iran as has already been indicated by him. 

Second, Donald Trump had a far better relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others like Turkey and Egypt. Trump made no qualms about getting along with authoritarian leadership of these countries, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.  

Trump touted agreements between Middle Eastern countries Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as one of his major achievements. To be fair, even his critics would grant him credit for the same. What puzzled many was his flexibility vis-à-vis North Korea and his obduracy in engaging with Iran. Former President Obama while commenting on the US withdrawal from JCPOA had remarked: 

Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans

Third, a more flexible engagement will prevent Iran from further swaying towards China, something Washington would want to prevent. One of the key factors cited for the Iran-China 25-year agreement (which will bolster economic and strategic relations between both countries) is the approach of the Trump Administration vis-à-vis Iran. 

Apart from this, Biden, who has repeatedly reiterated the point about engaging with allies, is likely to take their advice. The US President-elect has already proposed a global democracy summit where common challenges confronting the world will be discussed and it is expected that the US will seek the views of allies. 

UK, France, and Germany (E3), and Japan and India, are likely to be in favor of a different approach vis-à-vis Iran, given their economic and strategic interests.  

It is not necessary that Biden is likely to follow a policy identical to Obama’s given that global geopolitical dynamics in general and the situation in the Middle East have witnessed a significant shift. Yet a more flexible and pragmatic US approach towards Iran could prevent Tehran from veering further towards Beijing. It is also important for the US to give more space to its allies to strengthen economic linkages with Tehran. Joe Biden has numerous other challenges, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani too has a number of problems to cope with but there is a limited window for at least getting back to the dialogue table and reducing tensions.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal: An Agreement for All

[Editor’s note: the following is a short essay by Payam Ghorbanian. Payam was born in Tehran, Iran. He got his bachelor of science in Engineering from Zanjan University in Zanjan, Iran. He has been participating in liberal political activities and he was involved with some think tanks in Iran. He is doing research in the field of international relations and Iran’s foreign policy as an independent activist. He is now living in San Jose, California.

I cannot endorse this essay, but I am excited to post it because of its potential as a conduit for intercultural dialogue and exchange. I have left his essay largely intact, but did break up some of his longer paragraphs for clarity’s sake. Thanks to Payam for taking the time to write this.]

On November 24, Iran and the P5+1 group have reached to a historical deal on Tehran’s nuclear program at talks in Geneva, Switzerland. We might have difficulty to understand this process, the process which turns out the agreement to be real, so we must particularly take a look around to the real position of this group of countries plus Iran. It’s one of the Iranian’s attitude and way of thinking to say what they wanted to get and what they really ended up to.

In Iran, Hassan Rouhani was elected as a president on Jun 15, 2013. He is also known as one of the three people who talked to McFarlane in the Iran-Contra affair in 1985 about buying weapons during war between Iran & Iraq. During campaign for presidency, he said an extremely hopeful statement about nuclear program. He said: “It is good for nuclear centrifuges to operate, but it is also important that the country operates as well and the wheels of industry are turning.”

After he got elected, he put his faith in the right person and chose Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif to be the minister of foreign affairs with the complete authority in action. Mr. Zarif was the permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He is really familiar with the international policy regulations and the United States’ policy. Therefore, he was chosen to precede Iran’s nuclear negotiations and it was decided that the entire process would be carried out solely within his team.

It was one of the toughest situations for Iranian policy even though the middle class, especially the people who are living in the large cities, are incredibly united and hopeful for solving this nuclear issue; however, the extremists criticized any approach to any kind of agreement. For several years people of Iran have been feeling how sanctions can really cripple their destiny, economy, and their society structure. As a result of these effects, the rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, addiction, divorce, and prostitution have increased without any official and governmental justification. Therefore, we can consider the November 24th, 2013 as a distinguished and remarkable day in Iran’s modern history.

With the above introduction, let’s go through the text of the agreement for some details. It has been said:

“ … from the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line…Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months.”

Although Mr. Zarif announced that according to the agreement, enriching uranium under the 5% is now acceptable and claimed it as a big win for Iran, the majority of the people in Iran really do not care about this subject. They expect the removal of all sanctions and this was the reason that they were following the negotiations and they remained awake up until the agreement came out, which at that time was really late at local time in Iran.

After all these trials and tribulations, now you can find out how hope for the future can make our nation more united. The people clearly understand that it is not the end of the negotiations and it is just the start of long way and they are looking forward to the next 6 month. For the people, it is not just about nuclear program; it is more about their life and their children’s future. President Rouhani is now in the right place and with the supports of Iranians. We hope his social policy would be more flexible as well and we can see more freedom in the society.

We are not going to discuss here the Europe United’s policy during this long term negotiation with Iran. They always want to reserve the important positions for themselves; however, they usually get to every negotiation which others have already accepted. For the people of Iran, the Europeans are best known as those trying to prolong every issue.

On the other hand The Europeans always push the solution to the curb and then try to get back to the first step and ultimately get to the agreement and to take one step further. With flopping back and forth, the conclusion usually would never come out. People of Iran had been disappointed of this kind of policy. From Iranian’s point of view, France should be responsible for the last unsuccessful talks on November 9th. Unfortunately they are unreliable partner for this region.

After all these, it is now time to shift our focus to the president Obama’s foreign policy about Middle East during the last year. Not that far ago, Syria used chemical weapons and crossed the red line, which was mentioned by president Obama before. Moreover, United Nation confirmed that there was no doubt of such use of chemical weapon from Syrians regime. However, instead of taking military action, president Obama decided to follow Russians in this crisis and he still tries to solve this issue through the UN. As a fact, it is clear that in order to go through the UN path to solve this crisis, United States has to deal with Russians and Chinese, since they have the authority to block international actions through the Security Council.

It is a fact that the Syrian’s people have been killed during the last three years. However, it seems that this fact is going to be ignored and denied. On the other side, Obama’s policy in this case would let the conservative countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia to take part in this eternal disaster.  They can easily get rid of their extremist religious groups by allowing them to attend in this catastrophic war in Syria. Also due to the fact of this important unsolved problem in Syria, the pressure of human rights activities and other internal problems in their countries would be neglected. With this aspect of Syria’s crisis and also the failing of Arab spring, having an agreement with Iran is essential for Obama’s policy to get through these consecutive unsuccessful affairs. However, Israel’s prime minister tries to call this agreement as a historical mistake.

Great Britain has recently announced that they are concerned about total failure in Iran because of sanctions. After Great Britain evacuated all embassy staff from Iran in November 2011, now it seems that they are going to open relations with Iran following the election of President Rouhani. Undoubtedly they know the Middle East region much better than anyone else. They know this failure can affect Afghanistan, Iraq and the entire Middle East region. As a result, Britain has consecutively tried to help Iran and U.S. to approach to the final steps of negotiations.

On the other side, China is known as fatal mistake in economic partnership for Iranians during the last 10 years. Chinese took advantage of unjust situation of Iran and also destroyed industries in Iran are caused by importing cheap Chinese products. They have initially accepted the UN sanctions and have blocked about 50 billion dollars of Iran’s money in their banks; however, they ultimately should be happy of this agreement which definitely will moderate oil price and open up the gate of Iran’s market for Chinese investments.

Clearly with their foreign policy being so close to Iran, it is just a pose for Chinese in order to help them to precede their policy in southeast Asia using Iran’s threat for pushing away Chinese threat. Couple weeks ago they extended “air defense identification zones” which it seems will be accepted by United States. There is a common trend for all nations which can be written in this way that you are not going to consider as a powerful country if you just want to please yourself.

Finally, Russia should be indeed considered as the biggest winner of this agreement as well as the Middle East situation. Moreover, with the intent of being leader of the entire world, they forced other countries to accept their decisions on Syria’s crisis and by having this virtual confidence, now they really have plans to ruin all aspects of the free world. On September 12th, President Putin decisively took an issue with president Obama. His article was about United States people and he mentioned: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”

However, president Obama decided to ignore this article and show respect to the new Russia. I believe working with Russia about Syria’s crisis and choosing non-interventionism for Ukraine crises would be one of the Obama’s failures in the U.S. foreign policy. Now this agreement would help Russia and obviously president Putin to take the rein of power more and more. At the end if Russia and China find out that there are not any obstacles around, they will never ever conceal their ambitious points.