Manipal: After high political drama, the United States has finally chosen its next leader, Joe Biden. With the result comes a lot of expectations and apprehensions. One such expectation is on the long negotiated 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), leading to a brief three-year comparative peace between the United States and Iran. With least or no respect to the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted on 20 July 2015 and JCPOA, the United States under President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, despite huge amounts of good will from Europe. The cautious optimism expressed during the negotiation and subsequent agreement was not honoured by Trump and this further led to escalation of tension between Iran and the United States, culminating in the killing of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. The hostility towards Iran existed even when the deal was negotiated but President Barack Obama prevailed over it. Again time has come where discussions regarding JCPOA are making the rounds with President-elect Biden expressing his willingness to renegotiate the deal.
Joe Biden expressed his willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, if Iran ended its acknowledged breaches of the agreement, including the excess stockpiling of enriched uranium. Whereas Iranian President Hassan Rouhani mentioned in a recent Cabinet meeting that “Our aim is to lift the pressure of sanctions from the shoulders of our people”. A week after Biden’s victory, Rouhani called it as “an opportunity” for the United States “to compensate for its previous mistakes and return to the path of adherence to international commitments”. Iran seems to be taking forward anything associated with the deal from a position of strength—it’s as if the new US presidency too needs the deal desperately. Several scholars and diplomats are of the opinion that Iran is not interested in a temporary freeze and will not stop enriching uranium or reduce its large stockpile; in the meantime, there are all possibilities of the Trump administration making Iran’s situation worse till January 2021. The Iranian leadership has expressed that they would return to full compliance with the deal only when the does so. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested last week that Iran might need guarantees before letting the US rejoin the old JCPOA.
Iran seems to be covering up a lot of its internal turbulence caused by the Trump administration. The numerous sanctions imposed by Trump has pushed Iran into inflation. Its currency has been devalued and its revenue from oil exports have gone down drastically. One such example was in the form of US replacing Iran in terms of supplying required energy to India. Covid-19 has further added to Iran’s woes, severely hurting its economy. Nevertheless, Iran has not slowed down in advancing its nuclear programme. In fact, US sanctions were a blessing in disguise for it to advance its nuclear programme. Iran has amassed 12 times the quantity of low enriched uranium allowed under the agreement, exceeded enrichment levels set by the deal and introduced more centrifuges than permitted by the accord, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. What does this mean for Biden? He has been consistent on his views on Iran. In an op-ed in September 2020, Biden wrote that as President he would “make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon”. He argued the best way to achieve this was for the US to re-enter the deal. He further argued that “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
Biden has a major challenges ahead of him. The West Asian region is full of complications and hostility. The regional dynamics can put the US in an awkward position with any decision it takes. If Saudi Arabia, Israel and UAE are pleased with the outcome emerging out of any deal by the US in the region, it means exactly opposite for Iran and Turkey, apart from Syria and Iraq. A certain amount of resistance exists in the US domestic situation when it comes to Iran. Iran is seen as a sponsor of terrorism, with links to Syria and Lebanon. Even if Biden succeeds in convincing the US Congress and gets a go ahead, there is no guarantee that Iran would stick to the deal’s terms. Knowing Iran for what it has been since 1979, it is not going to be an easy choice for Biden to make. Several scholars opine that Iran may adhere to certain formalities and requirements of the agreement but in long run it would not shy away from its ambition of becoming a great power in the region. Further, even if Biden succeeds in clinching a deal, dealing with the remaining trusted friends and partners in the region would be tough as they are severely opposed to easing out sanctions and other controls over Iran.
Whether President-elect Biden has an experienced team to help him deal with such a difficult situation is a matter of conjecture. The emerging dynamics in West Asia, compulsions of maintaining long term friends in the region and simultaneously retaining the superpower status in the world are going to be a herculean task for the Biden administration. There is no denying the fact that US needs peace to be restored with Iran, moving away from several decades of hostility but at what cost remains a million-dollar question. It will be a win-win situation for both the US and Iran.
Dr Nanda Kishor M.S. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka, India-576104. He can be reached at [email protected]