Iran demands compensation, lifting of all sanctions before US can rejoin 2015 accord
President-elect Joe Biden has promised a change in US policy on Iran, but with the myriad domestic issues demanding his immediate attention, chances are any rapprochement with the Islamic Republic will have to wait.
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow and director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The Media Line the president-elect will be preoccupied with domestic issues at the onset of his term.
“I think Biden for a couple of reasons will not be focused on foreign policy. His energy will be on COVID, the economy, on race relations and healing the country. But he at least wants to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. I don’t think Biden wants to go back to it [in its original form].”
Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of American studies at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line that President Donald Trump’s “aggressive policy” against Iran failed to achieve its stated goals.
“It remains to be seen how different Biden is. Obviously, Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has failed; the United States has isolated itself across the globe and it’s facing an internal crisis,” Marandi says.
Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic, calling the accord “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”
While the threat of more sanctions still looms over Iran, Marandi, says this is “for psychological effect.”
“Iranians don’t take that seriously. The United States has sanctioned everything, and all the recent sanctions have simply been a repetition of older sanctions and they have no real effect on the ground. There is nothing more for the Americans to sanction.”
Biden was part of president Barack Obama’s administration that forged the 2015 nuclear accord, which included the partial lifting of sanctions.
The president-elect has said he will offer a “credible path back to diplomacy.”
Dr. Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line that “the fundamentals of US foreign policy in the Middle East are largely the same, whether Republicans or Democrats are in power.”
Biden’s immediate task is to defuse the tensions between the archenemies. Iranians say Trump broke trust by withdrawing from the nuclear deal.
Mousavi does not think Biden will be different on Iran than Trump has been.
“Donald Trump’s approach was to launch the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, to force Iran to give concessions on regional issues and on Iran’s missile program, things that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal. That didn’t work,” the professor adds.
He concedes that with Biden the situation is going to be more complex.
“I do think that Biden wants the same things that Trump wants, but he wants to achieve them in a different way, using diplomacy and multilateralism compared to Trump’s unilateralism and sanctions.”
Marandi says for relations to get better between the countries, the new administration must make the first move.
“It’s really up to Biden. The Iranians have said that the United States has to implement the nuclear deal in full, something which has never been done even under Obama and Biden.”
Vatanka says once the president-elect takes office, things will start moving.
“When Biden is in the White House, the US and Iran will decide on a date when the US will lift certain sanctions, not all. Obama didn’t lift all the sanctions. And the Iranians will quickly return to the number of centrifuges and lower the level of nuclear activity as agreed in the 2015 deal.”
He says this is the simple part of repairing the tumultuous relationship.
“That part should be relatively easy, but that doesn’t solve US-Iran tensions. That’s the challenge: Can they broaden the conversation to talk about Iran’s involvement in the region, and about its missile program,” Vatanka says.
Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, told The Media Line there is “a big difference” between Trump’s and Biden’s approaches on Iran, “especially if Biden is going to follow Obama’s path while dealing with Tehran.
“Biden is giving the priority to returning the US to the JCPOA [the 2015 nuclear agreement]. There certainly will not ‘maximum pressure’ anymore. Sanctions will be lifted sooner or later, and the Iranians will start putting conditions on what is acceptable for them and what is not, and what Biden should pay as compensation [for Tehran] to go back to the JCPOA agreement, whether money-wise or influence-wise,” Bakeer says.
He argues that the worst times for the Iranians are behind them with the election of Biden.
“Regardless of the time, the Iranians know they passed through the worst under Trump and that no ‘maximum pressure’ campaign will be there under Biden. In my opinion, the Iranians will have the advantage of reading Biden’s next moves, just as they did with Obama, and unless Biden is willing to deal with them in a different way, things will go back to where they were before Trump,” Bakeer says.
Since the Trump Administration pulled out of the agreement with Tehran two years ago, Washington has applied a “maximum pressure” campaign that included crippling sanctions, and in January 2020, Trump ordered the killing in Iraq of Iran’s most renowned military strategist, in a move that brought the two countries to the brink of war.
Mousavi says the White House under Trump has been “hostile toward Iran.”
“As soon as Trump came to power, he started pressuring Iran diplomatically and economically, and he eventually withdrew from the nuclear deal and then escalated hostilities and tensions by assassinating [Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem] Soleimani.”
And on Monday, Trump fired his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, leading some to speculate he is planning a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
“It’s very unlikely,” Vatanka says, adding that even if the president wants to do it, he will not find any support. “He will find resistance including in the Pentagon, which is very reluctant to start new wars in the Middle East when they are trying to wrap existing wars up.”
Vatanka also argues that a military confrontation with Iran “won’t be a breeze.
“This will be the mother of all wars. Let’s not kid ourselves: A war with Iran will not be a limited affair. What the Iranians do in retaliation is not something Trump can control.”
Washington’s policy toward Tehran failed to force it to the negotiation table. Iran’s position is that the nuclear deal is already in place and is a done deal.
Iran’s response to the US withdrawal from the agreement, and to the barrage of tough sanctions, came in May 2019, when it publicly reduced its compliance with most of the accord’s key commitments.
Vatanka says the barrage of US sanctions aimed at exerting pressure on the Iranians makes it harder for the incoming Biden Administration to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal.
“They [the Americans] kind of sanctioned themselves out. There’s not much else they can sanction. The oil, which is what used to be Iran’s big source of income, is entirely sanctioned, the banking sector is entirely sanctioned, the central bank, even the supreme leader is sanctioned. More sanctions will not bring Iran to the table to negotiate or make them capitulate.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter Sunday that “the world is watching” whether the new US administration “will abandon disastrous lawless bullying of outgoing regime and accept multilateralism, cooperation & respect for law.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to visit Israel on November 18, and is expected to hold meetings in the Gulf states as well. The purpose of his visit is to talk with Washington’s allies about Iran.
There is speculation as to exactly why Pompeo is coming.
“He could be visiting the region to plan covert operations aimed at undermining the [Tehran] regime. Could be on a tactical level, it could be sabotage against Iran’s nuclear program, or ways to help the Iranian opposition,” says Vatanka.
Sami Hamdi, editor-in-chief at The International Interest, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in London, told The Media Line the outgoing US administration is coordinating closely with Israel and several Gulf states on pushing thorough another wave of sanctions on Iran in the 10 weeks left until Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
“Whether sanctions will be lifted is dependent upon the pace of the negotiations between Washington and Tehran. There is much opposition from US allies to any prospect of talks, from Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, while there is consternation in Doha, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi that such talks may well lead to a recognition of Iran’s influence that has been secured via its militias and sectarian foreign policy, and at the expense of the interests of the Arab Gulf states,” Hamdi says.
“Moreover, Biden will not want to be seen to be giving in too easily to Tehran’s demands. Even if there is progress, Biden will seek to maintain sanctions as leverage.”
To appease the US allies, Biden has promised to be “tough on Iran,” insisting that his country’s return to the 2015 agreement would depend on the Islamic Republic coming back to “strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”
While Iran insists the United States can return to the agreement, Tehran says it will not accept any changes to it and that the Americans must first make amends and lift all sanctions reimposed or initiated by the Trump Administration.
“There has to be some sort of compensation because of the damage done. Otherwise, the Americans will have the incentive in the future to violate the agreement again. There has to be a price paid for these violations by the Americans,” says Marandi. “If Biden is serious about returning to the nuclear deal, he has to reverse all of Trump’s presidential decrees immediately, because they are all violations of the deal.”
Iran’s own presidential election is to be held next summer, and Vatanka says this will affect President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to negotiate with the new US administration.
Rouhani is not eligible to run in the election, having already served two terms.
“Iran’s president is only there for six more months; the elections weaken his hand, and gives more power to the hardliners in the Islamic Republic,” Vatanka adds. “I don’t think he has much space to maneuver, because the hardliners will keep him under tight control. They want him to rescue the 2015 deal, as much as it is possible.”