The Biden administration has hit its first brick wall with Iran.
A report by the Wall Street Journal on Sunday confirmed prior statements by Iran that they have rejected a first offer by the Biden administration to reengage in nuclear negotiations.
The question is whether Washington has more up its sleeve to gain Iranian cooperation than “I’m not Trump,” or whether another round of an extended nuclear standoff, including more provocations from Tehran, is on the horizon.
It is unclear if an initial Iranian rejection was and still is the plan, and if the Biden administration has the stamina to play chicken longer than the Islamic Republic to negotiate its way to a “stronger and longer” version of the 2015 nuclear deal.
On February 18, the US and the E-3 (England, France and Germany) pitched Tehran their proposal to restart talks. They offered to talk to the ayatollah’s negotiators, with neither side having to pay a price upfront.
This was Washington’s way of trying to break the deadlock. But there was an implied major concession upfront: the Iranians were lucky that Biden was not Trump, was willing to talk to them, and was willing to remove the nuclear sanctions once they returned to compliance with the 2015 deal’s nuclear limitations. At least no one was threatening to bomb them into the stone age.
If the Biden administration thought this alone would lead the Islamic Republic to immediately offer new concessions that it had refused to make to the Bush, Obama or Trump administrations, they were wrong.
Part of Iran’s power centers – the pragmatist camp led by President Hassan Rouhani – wants a return to the deal.
But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the real figure who calls the shots, and he vacillates between empowering pragmatists and empowering ultra-hardliners who oppose any diplomacy.
For Rouhani’s camp to finish with any continued political influence in the upcoming June election, they need to already have a victory to present to Khamenei and to the public.
If they return to the negotiating table but sanctions are not removed by June, it will leave them humiliated.
So while they prefer a Biden administration to a Trump administration, they have no interest in “behaving” better, even in the short-term, if they are not getting anything concrete out of it.
Moreover, Khamenei still believes that given long enough, Biden will bend.
Even Trump was not actually ready to go very far using military force against Iran, and Biden would lack support from much of the Democratic Party to use force where Trump didn’t.
Biden has also made it clear that his endgame is a return to the nuclear deal. But he never said what he would do to obtain Iran’s cooperation, let alone for a “stronger and longer” deal.
If Biden will not use a significant level of force and the Islamic Republic continues to provoke, then Khamenei probably figures that pressure will grow in the Democratic Party to return to the deal on terms more favorable for him.
If so, why should he and even the pragmatist Rouhani camp talk to the US before they receive at least partial sanctions relief?
In addition, if they receive partial sanctions relief for a partial return to the deal, they will weaken Biden’s leverage to get them to agree to a “stronger and longer” deal later.
So there is basically almost no incentive for Iran to come to the table until Biden offers them something Rouhani’s camp can take to the voters in June.Soon it will become clear whether there were other cards to play besides “I’m not Trump.”