Will Iran overplaying its hand force Biden to call its bluff - analysis

Biden may focus on the June Iranian elections as a deadline or may decide to wait longer and deal with whomever is elected afterward.

PEOPLE GATHER around the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran, in December 2019. (photo credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
PEOPLE GATHER around the water nuclear reactor at Arak, Iran, in December 2019.
Iran may be overplaying its hand.
Israel and Iran have both been maneuvering to influence the incoming Biden administration regarding the nuclear standoff. But only the Islamic Republic has given a deadline.
Iran has said that if sanctions are not dropped by February 21 it would kick out IAEA inspectors, a most dramatic nuclear violation since it would make it impossible for the world to follow the status of its nuclear program, absent clandestine efforts.
Along with Tehran’s recent jump-starting the enrichment of its uranium to the 20% level, this could signal to Israel, moderate Sunni states and even the West that the ayatollahs are moving toward a nuclear weapon. Iran also demanded this week the dropping of the 2015 deal’s snapback sanctions mechanism.
Though the incoming Biden administration has signaled that it wants to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal and roll back sanctions, there is no way sanctions can be removed in the administration’s first month in office.
Even if it wanted to roll back the sanctions in only 30 days, there is a complex sanctions machinery that may take longer to remove. Moreover, Joe Biden has made it clear that his first priority is the coronavirus followed by addressing other domestic priorities, including the fallout from the rioters’ attacks on the Capitol, racial justice issues, and the environment.
In foreign policy, his first priorities are dealing with China and Russia. Biden will not want to waste significant political capital in the first stage of his presidency looking too weak on Iran, even if his general goal is to rejoin the deal. Moreover, having a Democratic majority in the US Senate does not mean that he will avoid a vote against a quick rejoining of the Iran deal, given that some Democrats oppose rejoining.
As long as the status quo holds and the IAEA inspectors remain, Biden will likely take the time needed to reach a deal with the Islamic Republic. He may focus on Iran’s June elections as a deadline, or decide to wait longer and deal afterward with whoever is elected.
If Iran tries to force Biden into a corner on February 21, it is likely to push him away. The president-elect is not someone who likes to look weak and pushed around, whatever are his general policy goals. He had outbursts during the campaign when spontaneous criticism from voters breached his outer “skin” of tolerance. This is not Barack Obama, who was famous for being cerebral and almost impossible to anger on the spot.
The Islamic Republic believes it was successful using brinkmanship to corner the Obama administration into dropping certain issues. It appears that the ayatollahs have seized on the multiple statements by incoming Biden administration officials of their desire to rejoin the deal in order to make additional demands. Of course, it is possible that this could work, and Biden could announce in principle his rejoining of the deal by February 21, with actual sanctions relief applied afterward.
However, it is projected that it will take Iran three to four months to undo its various nuclear violations, including shipping its newly built-up stock of enriched uranium. It is difficult to see Biden lifting all of the sanctions at once – as opposed to some on a gradual basis – before Tehran is back in nuclear compliance. There is also zero chance that Biden will give up the snapback mechanism, as his subordinates have cited the mechanism as proof that they still have leverage over Iran even if they return to the deal.
It is more likely that pressure by Tehran could turn off Biden, and lead him to call Iran’s bluff on whether they will try to race out to a nuclear weapon now or wait for negotiations to play out.
If Biden does call the Islamic Republic’s bluff, it will show that they overplayed their hand, and a number of their demands and potential future deadlines will be revealed as paper tigers. This would set a tone for the Biden administration to handle Iran differently than the Obama administration, even if it might not check all of Israel’s important concerns.