As President-elect Joe Biden gets ready to take over, he faces numerous foreign policy challenges. One of the most complex issues is likely to be Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Tehran. A lot of analysis has focused on how Biden has spoken about conditional entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran agreement from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 – subject to Iran returning to full compliance. There have been indicators that Biden may get on board with the agreement unconditionally to give some space to the current government of Hassan Rouhani, which will face elections in 2021. Sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy (Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently stated that sanctions have inflicted damage to the tune of $250 billion), and hardline voices have become stronger – the last thing the US would want is hardliners capturing power.
For the US and its allies, the concern is about Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview to New York Times on December 2, Biden said “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” was to deal “with the nuclear program.”
For Iran, one of the major concerns is the fact that the country’s economy is in the doldrums. Rouhani and Zarif have both indicated this, and on more than one occasion. After Iran’s parliament and its Guardian Council recently gave a go ahead to a law that threatens to not permit UN inspections and to increase the level of uranium enrichment beyond the 2015 deal if sanctions were not removed within two months, Zarif clearly stated that these laws were not ‘irreversible’:
The Europeans and USA can come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken … will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance.
US dealings with Iran hinge on the overall geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and have been influenced by the relations of Israel and Saudi Arabia with Tehran. During the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia had a strong influence over American policy towards Iran. Even as Trump prepares to demit office, his administration is making it clear that there will be no change in US ‘maximum pressure’ policy vis-à-vis Iran (in fact Iran has been projected as the main threat to security in the Middle East). This includes imposition of sanctions, and also upping the ante vis-à-vis Iran via Saudi Arabia and Israel (serving and retired US officials point to an Israeli hand in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which would make US diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran tougher).
In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.
The key question is to what degree will Biden consult other stakeholders in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to observers, neither will have a veto over Biden’s Iran policy, as they did have during the Trump administration (Trump had a strong personal rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the Saudi royal family). Here it would be pertinent to point out that while no US President can afford to neglect Israel or Saudi Arabia, Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia, specifically in the context of its Human Rights record, in the past.
Saudi Arabia and the Biden Administration
Keeping this in mind, Saudi Arabia has sought to build a perception that it is open to removing the economic blockade vis-à-vis Qatar (the blockade was imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in June 2017). A statement was made by the Saudi Foreign Minister regarding possible headway between Qatar and other countries which had imposed a blockade.
Days after Jared Kushner’s visit to the Middle East, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince as well as the Emir of Qatar, and is supposed to have discussed the resumption of Qatari planes using Saudi and UAE’s airspace, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated:
Senior Qatari officials, including the Foreign Minister, said that while a resolution was welcome, it needed to be based on ‘mutual respect.’ Iran – which shares cordial ties with Qatar – welcomed the possibility of removal of the blockade. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh stated:
We straightforwardly and promptly welcomed any settlement of tensions in the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian foreign minister adopted a stance on the issue and said that within the framework of the good-neighbourliness policy, we embrace any move at any level to politically resolve the crisis in the Persian Gulf.
Statement regarding the JCPOA
Saudis have also indicated that they would like to be consulted with regard to the US getting on board with the JCPOA. Said Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, while speaking at a conference:
I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a build-up of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.
While the foreign minister indicated that Saudis have not been consulted so far by Biden, he also stated that Riyadh was willing to work with Biden.
Biden, unlike Trump, is likely to consult important stakeholders, but on the Iran issue he will have limited space and can not allow other countries to exercise inordinate influence. Biden is likely to work closely with US allies, and is likely to go by the advice of the European Union in general and the E3 in particular. Statements from Tehran indicate that in spite of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis Iran, there is space for negotiation though Biden may have to give up on his earlier conditionalities of getting on board the JCPOA. Much will depend upon the Trump administration’s approach vis-a-vis Iran for the remaining duration, and whether or not the Rouhani administration can prevent hardliners from setting the agenda.