Will Joe Biden Have the Nerve to Rejoin the Nuclear Deal with Iran?

On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden will be sworn in as President of the USA. Among the vital foreign policy issues awaiting him is that of the relations with Iran. Will Washington choose to revive the nuclear agreement? Will the US manage to overcome Israeli and Saudi resistance? One thing seems certain: there will be no fundamental changes regarding the Palestinian question, since alignment with Tel Aviv seems to have become a permanent feature of US foreign policy.

Gage Skidmore, 2019/Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of December, the New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman published an account of his interview with Biden. The future president spoke at length of the domestic issues at stake, what with the dire straits in which Donald Trump has left the nation. He also dealt with international questions and stressed two priorities. The first has to do with his country’s relations with China. In a word, there is an immense amount of work ahead and Biden wants to take his time. The second issue regards as especially urgent: it involves the resumption of talks with Iran.

Biden intends to abide without further ado with the terms of the agreement entitled “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with Iran by the United States and five other countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China), dealing with the limitation and monitoring of Iran’s production of fissile material for military use; an agreement which would prevent Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons for the next fifteen years. The main bargaining chip would be a lifting of the international economic sanctions which weigh so heavily on the Iranian people. It was this agreement that Trump denounced, to the great joy of Israel’s rulers and the Gulf monarchies, followed by an unprecedented aggravation of the financial sanctions against Iran as well.

Focus on the nuclear issue

At first, Biden had spoken in veiled terms of a return to that agreement conditioned on various prerequisites. In a campaign speech on 16 September 2020, he declared that Tehran had to take the first step and “return to strict compliance with the nuclear deal”, as if it wasn’t the United States that had turned its back on the agreement. Above all, Biden had wanted to negotiate an extension of the bans imposed on Iran’s production of enriched uranium and a drastic limitation of the ballistic missiles at its disposal. However, six weeks later, he seems to have changed his tune. He hasn’t given up the idea of getting Iran to renegotiate the missile issue, but the focus is now on restoring confidence—confidence in Washington’s keeping its word, a confidence which he knows to be terribly shaken in Iran.

Though he does not say so explicitly, he knows that even if discreet overtures to Iran have already been made, no serious negotiations can begin unless the USA showS that its return to the 2015 accord is not just verbal. It must be backed up by concrete acts, starting with the actual lifting of sanctions. When Friedman urges him to take a hard line with Iran, his reply is sharp indeed: “Look, there is a lot of talk about precision missiles and all range of other things that are destabilizing the region”. [But] “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear problem”. Because if Iran gets the Bomb—and if no agreement is reached, they will get it, he believes—there will be a terribly dangerous risk of nuclear proliferation. “And the last goddamn thing we need in this part of the world is a buildup of nuclear program”.

Besides which, he infers, we have to move fast. There will be nothing like a few powerful gestures to convince Tehran of the new administration’s good intentions. Friedman is appalled. Isn’t that risky? Biden answers that sanctions can be lifted and they can be re-established if necessary. In other words, let’s begin by lifting them. If the negotiations don’t go well, there will always be time to backtrack. He intends to move forward, even if “the going will be hard”. Biden will soon learn in detail the state in which Trump has left the Iranian dossier. A week before his interview, on 27 November, Mohsen Fakrizadeh, thought to be the mastermind of Iranian military nuclear research, was murdered by what was most likely an Israeli commando, In his interview, Biden makes no reference to this occurrence. But he knows that five days prior to that assassination, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, met in Saudi Arabia with the country’s strong man, crown prince Mohamed Ben Salman (known as MBS), together with Benyamin Netanyahu. A “secret” meeting, instantly made public…

With that assassination, either Netanyahu meant to show Biden he was still bent on capsizing any attempt to negotiate with Iran, or else Israel was carrying out an explicit request from Trump. In either case, the action was not only meant to show Iran that Israel was capable of hitting its most protected dignitaries, but even more certainly to create chaos with an eye to undermining the policy that the new president wishes to develop vis-a-vis Tehran. Though Biden made no mention of that murder, several people close to him were very severe. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy security advisor, posted a tweet describing it as “an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming US administration and Iran.” John Brennan, former head of the CIA, spoke of an “act of State terrorism.”

Donald Trump’s manoeuvres

Can Trump and his Israeli confederate still thwart Biden’s Iranian ambitions a fortnight ahead of his taking office? It seems improbable. As Mark Fitzmark, once in charge of nuclear non-proliferation for the State Department, declared: “The reason for assassinating Fakhrizadeh wasn’t to impede Iran’s war potential, it was to impede (the) diplomacy” of the incoming administration. But Robert Malley, chairman of the International Crisis Group, does not believe in the ultimate efficacy of this ploy. Trump and Netanyahu won’t be able to “kill diplomacy” he believes. And indeed, up to now, Iran has not reacted aggressively to the murder of its scientist.

The fact remains that a return to more peaceful relations between Iran and the USA is still uncertain. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Trump’s US supporters have not given up the idea of undercutting Washington’s overtires to Tehran. They know that in Iran itself, President Hassan Rouhani, who for four years has been advocating restraint in response to the “nutcase” in Washington, has been weakened today. And that Biden, on the Iranian issue, will have problems with his own public opinion.

The victory of two Democrats in Georgia’s Senate elections on January 5 now gives Joe Biden a majority in the Senate. This will lighten his workload on many issues. But should not radically change the situation for Biden on the Iranian issue, as the majority of Congress remains reticent about any nuclear agreement with Iran.

As for the Iranians, their leaders began to increase pressure on Biden. On 4 January, they announced the resumption of production of uranium enriched to 20%, which they were to renounce according to the 2015 agreement. Way to get the message across: if Washington intends to return to the accord, it will have to give tangible guarantees. On the other hand, a presidential election is scheduled in Iran for June 18.

If the primary decision-maker, Supreme Guide of the Revolution Ali Khomenei, arranges the election of a candidate hostile to negotiations, Biden’s hopes of reaching a broad settlement with Tehran may soon be obsolete. Yet Seyed Hossein Moussavian thinks otherwise. A former high-ranking Iranian diplomat, close to ex-President Hachemi Rafsandjani (1989–1997), he was spokesperson for the Iranian delegation at the first series of talks with the West from 2003 to 2005. Today, he teaches at Princeton and though he is convinced that a conservative will indeed again be President of Iran, he does not believe this will put paid to Khomenei’s determination, whatever his misgivings, to return to the negotiating table.

And Moussavian has defined the outlines of comprehensive discussions which could well prove satisfactory to both Joe Biden … and the Iranians. During Biden’s very first months in the White House, he writes in Middle East Eye, Tehran must be able to observe a genuine return to the terms of the 2015 agreement, i.e., a lifting of the sanctions. Once this is accomplished, the negotiations could deal with the US demands for an extension of the scope of the agreement. In which case, quid pro quo, the elegant thing for Washington to do would be to make a gesture of its own. Taking the Guardians of the Revolution off its list of terrorist organisations would be one such gesture; removing the individual sanctions against Iranian leaders would be another.

Then, sooner or later, would come the issue of ballistic missiles. The West would like Iran to stop adding to their number. The Iranian viewpoint, Moussavian explains, is that this problem demands a multilateral solution. They remind their counterparts that Saudi Arabia has many Chinese missiles with a range of over 5,000 kilometres and that Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads and 5,000 Jericho missiles to serve as vectors. These and other countries should thus be invited to participate in multilateral talks. In short, Iran’s starting point for any talks is simple. If Israel, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers abandon or limit the number of their missiles, Tehran will do the same. If they refuse, why should Iran knuckle under? The West’s room for negotiation is not mill, but it is narrow. Yet this was also the case when the nuclear talks began, and they lasted nearly fifteen years.

“Reappraising” relations with Riyadh

Needless to say, the Israeli and Saudi responses to such a demand would be one of outraged and flat refusal. But this being the case, the Iranians will have driven a further wedge between the Biden administration and its two regional allies. In this respect, a rift has already begun to appear when Joe Biden won the presidential election. Netanyahu and MBS greeted the news coolly and with little enthusiasm. Since then, “in the background, it is clear that Netanyahu is deliberately healing up the atmosphere with the Iranians ahead of Biden’s inauguration”, Amos Hazel, military columnist for Haaretz writes. Israel, with Egypt’s consent, has sent a submarine through the Suez Canal en route for the Persian Gulf. And Netanyahu, addressing the pupils of the army flying school, assured them that come what may, Israel will keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

As for Biden, he is no great admirer of the alliance that Trump cobbled together in the Middle East, whereby the Gulf monarchies (plus Egypt) joined an Israeli-American axis with a blatantly anti-Iranian stance. He hinted that once in the White House, he might “reappraise” his relations with Riyadh: and above all, that he would ask Congress to put an end to the financial support for the Saudi participation in the Yemen war. As for his relations with Israel, behind the demonstrations of undying friendship, Biden, who had observed the way in which Obama was successfully humiliated by Netanyahu, knows that if he promotes a new agreement with Iran he will have to cope even more forcefully than Obama with the hostility of Israel. The Israelis, and especially the vast majority of their politicians, feel themselves orphans of Donald Trump. Polls taken before the US election showed that 77% of Israeli Jews favoured Trump (only 22% favoured Biden). After Biden’s election, Netanyahu declared that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement” with Iran. From the very start, the hiatus is glaringly clear.

So, if he is resolved to revive the agreement with Tehran, Joe Biden will have to face off against the Israelis. Is he prepared to do so? What will he have to offer them, if need be, to bring them to heel? Biden belongs to a tradition in which it was his party, the Democrats, that was the most favourable to Israel until the formation of a quasi-fusional alliance between the radical Republican right, born-again or nationalist, and the Israeli colonialist far right, both growing rapidly stronger in their respective countries. Hhs two Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, made efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were unsuccessful, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In both instances, Israel stood in the way of any agreement, rejecting the creation of a Palestinian State on the totality of the land it has occupied since the June 1967 war. And in both instances as well, those Democratic Presidents chose, when push came to shove, to avoid a conflict with Israel.

Is Biden capable of understanding that after those failures, and in the light of the persistent policy of land-grabbing and territorial dismemberment systematically carried out by Israel in Palestine, any “negotiation” between two partners who are so extraordinarily unequal in every way and which would be meant to lead to the coexistence of two states “living peacefully side by side”, has become an illusory mirage? A mantra with no other content than a guarantee that the status quo will be maintained, that the military occupation and colonisation will go on indefinitely?

Is Biden capable of understanding that what is henceforth at stake is not “peace” but an end to the occupation? That the Palestinians’ only weapon is their continued existence, when the Israelis have locked themselves into a colonial mentality which prevents them from seeing themselves in any other role than as eternally dominating another people? In short, is Biden capable of understanding that there is no reason why the Israelis should of their own accord initiate a process which would involve striking a balance between the notion of compromise and the idea that those they oppress have as much right to freedom and dignity as they do themselves? For them to take that step, their hand will have to be forced. Failing this, they won’t budge and wil go on sabotaging any possible agreement, always claiming that it is the Palestinians who don’t want peace, at the same time whittling away every day at the meagre self-determination that is left to them.

Is Biden aware of this reality? Would he be prepared to change it? This is very unlikely. During his campaign, his entourage repeatedly asserted that under no circumstances would he touch the US military aid to Israel (3.8 billion dollars per annum in free hardware, along with the cancellation of debts). “Which gives [Netanyahu] little reason to reconsider his current behaviour […] It’s disturbing, frightening stuff” writes political analyst Peter Reinart, editor of a progressive Jewish journal.

Until now, the signals sent by Biden are not very reassuring. True, he has said he will reopen the US representation in Palestine and the PLO’s office in Washington, both of which were shut down by Trump, and that he will again pay the US contribution to UNWRA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. But he also spoke out in favour of maintaining the US embassy in Jerusalem. And above all, he has laid no particular stress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Which it must be said has not for a decade now been among the top priorities for US foreign policy.

Hardly a daring move for the State Department

And lastly, the appointment of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State will certainly be bound to please Israel. Ariel Sharon’s former centre right Forrign Minister, Tzipi Livni, has declared that this was the “most favourable possible” choice for Israel. Dore Gold, an ideologue of the colonial right who is very close to Netanyahu, said she was “reassured”. After Bill Clinton, whom the Israeli right had shunned, and Barack Obama whom they had detested, here is Joe Biden, appointing Blinken, who appears to be more understanding. Not only did he applaud Trump’s shifting the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but Blinken has also declared he was in favour of trying to build on the normalisation agreements between Israel and the Gulf states sponsored by the Trump administration “and trying to energize the Arab Gulf states to become productive players in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.” That “normalisation” of the relations between Israel and the region’s monarchies was based among other factors on the typically Israeli idea of an “economic peace” with the Palestinians, supposed to convince them to give up any political demands.

Contrary to a fringe of the Democratic Party, increasingly detached from the “indestructible bond” with Israel, Blinken embodies its traditional stand on the Israeli-Palestinian question. This attitude has always proven beneficial to the advocates of colonisation, guaranteeing in fact their impunity. Moreover, all during the Biden campaign, Blinken never failed to repeat, addressing various Jewish audiences in the US, his “unshakeable commitment" to Israel. And, he would add, in the event of disagreements with Israeli leaders, Mr. Biden ”believes strongly in keeping your differences as far as possible between friends behind doors”. And Blinken is certainly not likely to treat Israel the way he treated another country, purportedly another “friend” of the United States, Saudi Arabia. For at the same time, he declared: "We would review the US relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, to which President Trump has basically given a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of politics, including the war in Yemen, but also the murder of Jamal Khashoggi [and] the crackdown on dissent at home”.

In short then, Blinken, who played a major role in the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, is claiming, or wants us to believe, that he can combine a re-engagement with Iran, the preservation of Israel’s interests as its leaders perceive them and bring MBS to heel. In other words, he means first to reassure a Congress which is unconditionally supportive of Israel, very hostile to Tehran but also to Riyadh. That could make for a successful communication policy, but not a coherent diplomacy. The main difficulty which the Biden administration is going to run up against is that the alliance Trump put into place in the Middle East between a bunch of leaders who, like himself, all place their own countries first, seems to be built on a relatively solid community of interests. It involves, on the one hand, a country, Israel, which has a lot to offer its new friends, from opening many doors in Washington to providing them with state-of-the-art technology for the cyber-surveillance of their populations; and on the other, regimes which the recent “Arab Springs” showed how terrified they are of the revolt of their own peoples. That alliance also appears more coherent and easier to set up than any plans to redress the balance of power between protagonists in the Middle East.

Moreover, in the opinion of Trita Parsi, an Iranian analyst residing in the USA (he was chairman of the National Iranian American Council) Biden has only a scant five months before the election in Iran to purge the Iranian-US relationship of the Trump legacy. ‟If Biden forgoes negotiations with Iran, or if the talks sour, there will probably be a sharp deterioration in the US-Iranian relations with a significantly increased likelihood of war.”