The new Biden administration is likely to take a more cooperative approach with Iran regarding the country’s nuclear program, with a new diplomatic accord more a question of scope and detail rather than likelihood. Of course, this remains relative to a benchmark policy of the previous administration.
Yet, Biden’s decision will shape US-MENA relations throughout his 4-year term. The US administration is dealing with a completely different regional landscape than ex-President Barack Obama faced when he signed the Iran nuclear agreement—dubbed JCPOA—in 2015.
Biden will not enjoy the luxury of holding secretive talks like Obama did to ensure the success of his deal. The entire world, including the rivaling Republican party, is watching today – and perhaps meddling. Israel, the US’ closest ally, is likely to leverage its newfound diplomatic standing in several capitals across the Arab world to impact any negotiations.
Washington wants to see how serious Tehran is about resuming compliance with the clauses of the 2015 agreement, especially in terms of restraining its nuclear program (i.e. uranium enrichment). A reduction in enrichment to the levels dictated in the JCPOA will likely yield a favorable and diplomatic response from the Biden administration. Iran is pushing for the new US administration to go back to the JCPOA first, to avoid spending valuable time on negotiating the terms of a new and updated deal. Reformists in Tehran do not have the luxury of time with the Iranian presidential election set to take place in June this year. Biden’s ultimate aim would be a deal that limits Iran’s missile program and its support for regional proxies.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, is leading an aggressive drive to strictly bring the US back to the 2015 deal. However, this exposes two realities: (i) That, despite Iranian denials, Trump’s policies inflicted much damage on the country; (ii) Tehran is in an incredibly weak position ahead of negotiations. However, ideologically driven Iranian hardliners, in control of the parliament, are not interested in a deal.
As the nuclear negotiations become a central component of the forthcoming presidential elections, so too is the state of the Iranian economy. Tehran is battling crippling US sanctions and a raging pandemic that is choking the domestic economy. Low oil prices are also impacting the country’s budget, with US sanctions forcing the Iranians to sell their oil at an even lower price on the black market. Millions have been pushed into extreme poverty over the past year. Hence, complex domestic dynamics of Iranian politics ahead of Iranian elections might foil Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani’s desperate push for a revival of the 2015 JCPOA, or the deal itself might be the reformist faction’s saving grace.