WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement if Iran abides by the deal, but both sides will have to race against the clock and navigate a political minefield to reach that goal.
With Iran due to hold elections in June, any diplomatic effort will have to move swiftly during Biden's first few months in office, say former U.S. officials, European diplomats and regional experts.
Iran's current president, Hassan Rouhani, threw his weight behind the 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and there's no guarantee the next Iranian president will be as open to cutting a deal.
Biden and Rouhani also have to contend with fierce opponents to the agreement in Washington and Tehran, as well as in the region, and they will need to show that any concessions are met with reciprocal actions by the other side, former U.S. officials said.
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Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have sent clear messages that Iran is ready to talk to the Biden administration about reviving the deal, as long as Washington abides by the terms of the agreement.
"Our aim is to lift the pressure of sanctions from the shoulders of our people," Rouhani said in televised remarks at a recent Cabinet meeting. "Wherever this favorable opportunity arises we will act on our responsibilities. No one should miss any opportunity."
The Iranian government's statements over the past two weeks show that "they are moving pretty fast to signal to Biden various options for re-engaging Iran diplomatically," said Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
In the meantime, the Trump administration has vowed to keep ratcheting up the pressure on Iran in its final months in office, imposing fresh sanctions this week that could complicate Biden's plans.
"It seems pretty clear that the Trump administration wants to continue maxing out the maximum pressure policy between now and January," said Naysan Rafati, senior analyst for Iran at the International Crisis Group think tank. "They're looking at this as a period to lock in their own policy as far as possible."
Iran and the bomb
The 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers lifted punishing economic sanctions on Tehran in return for strict limits on Iran's nuclear activities. But after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018, Iran has breached some of those limits, shrinking the time it would take for Tehran to build an atomic bomb.
Trump reimposed sanctions that were eased under the JCPOA and has slapped numerous additional sanctions on Iran, dealing a severe blow to the country's economy. The country's currency has plunged in value, inflation is rampant and its oil exports — Iran's main source of revenue — have dropped dramatically.
But the sanctions have not dissuaded Iran from advancing its nuclear program. Iran has amassed 12 times the amount 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.
Nuclear experts say that Iran's "breakout time" to secure enough weapons-grade material for an atomic bomb has dropped from 12 months when the agreement came into force to about three to four months.
In an op-ed in September, Biden said as president he would "make an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon." He argued the best way to achieve that was for the U.S. to re-enter the deal.
"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 wrote.
Even if Biden and Rouhani are looking to strike an agreement, arriving at a formula that would allow the U.S. to re-enter the deal, and for Iran to unwind its nuclear activities, will not be easy.
Rather than removing sanctions all at once or Iran returning immediately to full compliance, a more likely scenario could see an incremental approach over a period of three or four months, said former U.S. officials and European diplomats. A first step could have Iran freeze its nuclear work, in return for some level of sanctions relief. Further steps could see Iran eventually return to compliance and all the nuclear-related sanctions lifted.
Biden’s team are no strangers to the topic or to Iranian diplomats, as several of his advisers were deeply involved in the long negotiation that led to the 2015 agreement under President Barack Obama. Biden himself has met Iran’s foreign minister dozens of times. That experience could help speed up the diplomacy and improve the prospects for an agreement, former officials said.
However, the Biden administration would have to decide whether it would lift other sanctions that were imposed by Trump after the agreement came into effect, including those that targeted Iran's central bank. Many of the sanctions are not related to Iran's nuclear activity but refer to ballistic missiles, human rights and Iran's support for proxy forces in the region like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Although Biden and European officials have suggested building on the agreement to address other issues, including Iran's growing ballistic missile arsenal, Iran has so far rejected that idea. Moreover, any new agreement outside the parameters of the 2015 deal would have to win approval from a skeptical U.S. Congress, where the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5 will decide whether Republicans retain their majority in the Senate.
Israel and the Gulf Arab states, which vehemently opposed the nuclear accord, would demand a say if a new agreement came up for negotiation.
"If we're going to negotiate the security of our part of the world, we should be there," the UAE's ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, said at a recent event organized by Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.
Iran would not be prepared to put its missile forces on the table unless the defense systems of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also up for discussion, something that is hard to imagine happening in the current climate, according to Richard Dalton, the British ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006.
"I think we can rule out a big bargain approach in which everything is on the table all at once," Dalton said.
But critics of the 2015 agreement say Biden will inherit valuable leverage from the sanctions Trump imposed, and that he could hold out for better terms than simply returning to the original deal.
"From my point of view it would be crazy to rejoin the deal without getting something more out of it," said David Albright, an expert on Iran's nuclear program with the nongovernmental Institute for Science and International Security. "Whatever you think of Trump — and I didn't like that he left the deal — he generated a tremendous amount of leverage on Iran, and not to use that just seems crazy. In that sense it's a gift to Biden."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday defended the administration's "maximum pressure" campaign as a success and warned against lifting the sanctions, saying it would provide funds to the Iranian regime's military and proxies in the region. "Reducing that pressure is a dangerous choice, bound to weaken new partnerships for peace in the region and strengthen only the Islamic Republic," Pompeo said in a statement.
Another wild card looming over the negotiations will be whether and how Iran plans to retaliate for Trump's decision to assassinate one of its top generals, Qassim Soliemani. Although Iran responded at the time by firing missiles at American troops in Iraq, few believe that will be the sum total of the country's reaction. On Sunday, a top Iranian general vowed to "avenge the blood" of Soleimani "in the field."
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe Iran will bide its time and plan carefully for a more potent response, possibly a strike against an American general or an ambassador overseas.
Lowering the temperature
In his first days in office, Biden will be keen to lower the temperature with Iran, former U.S. officials said. The new president could take a number of confidence-building steps that would show Washington is ready for diplomacy, according to European diplomats and former U.S. officials. The moves could include lifting sanctions on Iran's foreign minister and some other senior officials, scrapping a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries that affected many Iranian Americans, and loosening restrictions on humanitarian imports to Iran.
Biden already has vowed to lift the travel ban and said he would "make sure U.S. sanctions do not hinder Iran's fight against Covid-19."
Iran faces shortages of medicine and medical equipment, including insulin, drugs for cancer treatment, influenza vaccine and test kits for the coronavirus, according to Iranian officials. The Treasury Department has issued licenses allowing humanitarian imports and says the United States is not to blame for any shortages or high prices of medical goods.
Katherine Bauer, a former Treasury Department official, said the aggressive sanctions policy of the Trump administration has had a chilling effect on many foreign banks, who are concerned about the risk of running afoul of American sanctions, even though humanitarian trade is legally permitted.
"Because of the Trump administration's enforcement posture, banks remain reluctant to engage in this sort of trade," said Bauer, now at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
High-profile public statements and new guidance from the Biden administration could send a signal to European and other banks to approve the humanitarian transactions sought by Iran, Bauer and other former officials said.
Without a deal before Iran's June 2021 elections, Biden may have no willing counterpart to negotiate a deal.
If this past February's parliamentary elections, where conservatives made gains amid low turnout, are taken as a bellwether for next year's vote, then Iran's next president could be more conservative and more skeptical of international engagement, possibly dooming any chance of breathing life into the deal, former U.S. officials and experts said. If, however, the current government in Iran succeeds at securing relief from U.S. sanctions before the vote, that could offer a lifeline to Rouhani's moderate allies.
Trump's stance toward Iran has given ammunition to Iranian hardliners who opposed the deal from the outset, and they have blasted Rouhani as naive for trusting the Americans. Many have argued the United States owes Iran "compensation" for the damage done by the sanctions, before Tehran can consider returning to compliance.
Despite the rhetoric, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the coterie of hard-liners around him have not closed the door entirely to reviving the deal, partly because they are desperate to get access to the hard currency being blocked by American sanctions, according to two former senior intelligence U.S. officials with long experience working on Iranian issues.
The nuclear deal, the former intelligence officials said, did not impinge on the hard-liners' priorities, which include waging an aggressive campaign to expand Iranian influence in the region through proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.