Experts in Washington weigh in on Biden’s possible Iran policy

Could recent changes in the region affect the Biden administration’s desire to join the Iran deal again?

Democratic 2020 US presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at his election rally, after news media announced that Biden has won the 2020 US presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 7, 2020. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Democratic 2020 US presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at his election rally, after news media announced that Biden has won the 2020 US presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, US, November 7, 2020.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – In 50 days, US President-elect Joe Biden is set to enter the Oval Office. One of his first decisions on the foreign policy front will be whether to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and how to do it. During the campaign, Biden and his advisers indicated a desire to get back to the JCPOA, under some conditions, which they called a strategy to “strengthen and lengthen” the deal and its sunset clauses.
However, there have been changes in the region in the last three months. Israel has normalized ties with three Arab states – the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. And while other normalization agreements are still being discussed, both Israel and the Gulf states are standing together against returning to the JCPOA without a fundamental change in the deal. Could recent changes in the region affect the Biden administration’s desire to join the Iran deal again?
“I would expect the Biden team to conduct a thorough review of all foreign and defense policies,” says Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington. There is obviously a strong instinct to return to a deal with Iran, Schanzer noted, “but recent revelations about the nuclear program, support for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and the manufacturing of precision-guided munitions should prompt the new administration to move more deliberately.”
One issue that the Biden administration must address is the precision guided munition problem, Schanzer explained. “Iran is positioning these deadly weapons in strategic locations around the region to threaten Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to name a few,” he continued. “I would also add that the incoming administration should maintain maximum pressure until the regime in Tehran makes lasting and meaningful concessions on the nuclear file.”
Following the killing of the Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week, questions arose regarding the consequences it might have, but Schanzer believes that the assassination itself changes little. “But if the regime in Tehran attacks Israel, its Arab neighbors, or US assets, it will instantly become more difficult to justify a return to negotiations,” he added.
“Of course, the regime already has a bloody track record. But an attack would make for complicated optics.”
Naysan Rafati is the Iran senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. His research is focused on the Iran nuclear deal and the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. He said that the Biden team has clearly indicated an interest in re-engaging diplomatically with Iran on the initial basis of the 2015 deal.
“They see the JCPOA as still representing the best available tool for addressing US concerns over Iran’s nuclear program – concerns that under the maximum pressure policy have grown more pronounced – and that this could also open the door to discussing non-nuclear issues.”
Like Schanzer, Rafati agrees that the impact of Fakhrizadeh’s killing on these dynamics may well be a function of how Tehran responds. “While there are loud voices [in Iran] calling for retaliation, there is also an awareness that keeping their tinder dry and waiting out the next weeks could bring a greater strategic dividend, particularly if it facilitates an economic reprieve from sanctions,” he said.
What would you expect the negotiations to look like?
Rafati: “Zarif has floated the idea that a process on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 2231 could be moved forward with the US taking executive action and Iran reciprocating with a resumption of its nuclear commitments – in his view, something that could be done ‘automatically.’ Issues related to the JCPOA would then be addressed via the Joint Commission, which is where the parties to the deal – the one time P5+1, now the P4+1 – are convened by the EU to discuss the agreement.
“Beyond that, the conversations could take place either in multilateral formats, with direct discussions on the side lines, or else bilaterally, though those would also run the risk of being criticized domestically,” he said.
Mike Pregent, a senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that he doesn’t expect much to happen immediately after Biden takes office. “And that will disappoint the regime to the point it makes demands.”
He added that he does not believe Iran will be the priority of the Biden team. “A Biden administration will not have the political capital that the Obama 2015 team had,” said Pregent. He added that he would continue the “Maximum Pressure” campaign and use leverage from Trump’s administration to make demands of the regime from a position of strength – “and get a nuclear deal that the Senate will ratify.”
Pregent predicted that the steps that will be taken over the next 45-50 days will be additional sanctions and possible military strikes on IRGC-QF proxies in Iraq and IRGC nuclear facilities. “The comments from former Obama officials and the announced Biden foreign policy team condemning the attack are considered weak and empty attempts to tell the regime help is coming,” he said.
“The fact that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s program fell under IRGC control negates the narrative that an innocent scientist was assassinated – he held the rank of a senior IRGC general and he was in charge of the IRGC’s illegal program to build nuclear weapons.”


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