A mutual US–Iranian accommodation?
8 Feb 2021|

The Joe Biden administration faces numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. On the external front, one of them is how to deal with Iran. Biden has indicated the reduction of tension between the two sides, which had been inflamed by Donald Trump, as a priority. Yet, both parties have serious demands, which will make the process of reaching a mutual accommodation of interests arduous, but not necessarily impossible.

The main points of concern for Washington are Iran’s nuclear program, missile capability and regional influence. Spurred on by these issues and by like-minded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Gulf state leaders, especially Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammad bin Salman, Trump pursued a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and nurtured an Arab–Israeli front against Iran. He demanded a renegotiation of the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), a signature achievement of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump cancelled America’s participation in the JCPOA, imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, beefed up US military deployment in the Gulf and threatened Iran with ‘obliteration’.

As could have been expected, Tehran remained totally defiant. In retaliation, it withdrew some of its commitments to the JCPOA, and accelerated its uranium enrichment, which is now at 20%—well above the 3.7% limit enshrined in the agreement. Iran also expanded its strategic relations with two of America’s major adversaries, China and Russia. The regime weathered the impact of Trump’s bellicose approach, although the Iranian people bore the brunt of the US pressure campaign, and still do.

However, Trump’s approach failed to produce any positive results. While sharing Trump’s concerns, Biden wants to de-escalate tensions with Iran. In so doing, he would remove a sore point in America’s relations with three traditional European allies and signatories to the JCPOA—Britain, France and Germany, which have strongly wished to see the continuation of the agreement—and focus more on Russia and China as the main diplomatic and strategic battlegrounds.

Yet, he faces two hurdles. One is strong opposition from anti-Iranian forces in the US and the region, which are against giving Tehran anything before it has agreed to restore all of its commitments to the JCPOA and downgrade its offensive military capability and regional prowess. The other is Tehran’s resolute stance not to show flexibility until Washington has lifted all or at least some of the significant sanctions.

To overcome these obstacles, Biden has just appointed a very experienced Middle East hand, Robert Malley, as envoy to lead a team to negotiate with Iran. Malley was previously involved in Israeli–Palestinian negotiations and was the lead negotiator of the JCPOA. He is intellectually and diplomatically well qualified for the task. The reformist and pragmatist Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his team would find it conducive to work with him in traversing the hurdles.

Diplomacy is the art of compromise based on mutual understanding of each other’s position. It was on this basis that former US secretary of state and now Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Zarif were able to conclude the JCPOA. Both sides had to step back from their original positions in order to reach a compromise: Iran had to give up an insistence on its continued uranium enrichment program as non-negotiable, and the US had to forgo its stance on Iran abandoning its nuclear program.

The urgency of a US–Iran rapprochement over nuclear and wider issues cannot be underestimated. New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Iran is weeks or months away from enriching sufficient uranium for a potential nuclear bomb. Zarif has rejected this claim and reiterated that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and that the country’s Islamic regime is ideologically opposed to nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, he has indicated Tehran’s willingness to reverse the withdrawal of some of its commitments, provided that Washington lifts Trump’s sanctions.

The gap between the US request for Iranian full compliance with the JCPOA and the Iranian demand for an end to the sanctions is not insurmountable. Washington is keen to see Iran downgrade its uranium enrichment for peaceful use only, and Tehran is under enormous pressure from the effects of the sanctions and of Covid-19 (which is on its third wave in Iran with devastating impact) to respond positively to a Washington overture.

In contrast to Trump, Biden has already taken certain steps that could help renew dialogue with Tehran. They include halting the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, dropping support for the Saudi-led Arab coalition operations in Yemen and calling for an end to the Yemen war, removing the Iran-backed Houthis from the US terrorist list and restoring some of America’s financial contributions to Palestinians for humanitarian and security purposes. As in the past, Israel will do whatever it can to prevent a US–Iranian rapprochement, but this is something that Biden has to manage in a similar manner to Obama.

Overall, both Washington and Tehran have compelling reasons to open negotiations as early as possible. There’s room for reaching a mutually beneficial deal as long as spoilers are prevented from making the waters too muddy.