Biden’s Iran dilemma

by Neville Teller

The Iran issue poses a real predicament for Joe Biden, as he takes up the reins of office.  How can he fulfill his election promise of returning the US to the Iran nuclear deal, while avoiding the unfortunate consequences that followed President Barak Obama’s original negotiation?

As Obama came into office, he made no secret of the fact that he believed much was wrong with his country.  He felt guilty about America’s strength and its political record.  In a keynote speech in Strasbourg in April 2009 he declared that throughout the nation’s existence “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive, of others.”  If only the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”. 

His mention of Iran at that early stage was significant.  A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar put it, was to transform US-Iranian relations. If he could bring Shia Iran on side, the presumption goes, he believed it could act as a bulwark against America’s real enemies, Sunni Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

A vital element in his pursuit of better relations with Iran was the nuclear deal between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, announced in July 2015.  This Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is considered by many to represent Obama’s most significant foreign policy achievement. 

However the deal, with its partial curtailment of Iran’s nuclear program, the lifting of sanctions on the regime, the injection of a huge financial “sweetener”, and the opening up of Iran to global trade, had the deleterious effect of boosting Iran’s power, influence and aggression across the Middle East. The inevitable consequence was that by the time Obama left office, the US had lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.  The prestige of the US in much of the Middle East had sunk to a new low.   

Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”, as its leaders dubbed the United States?  Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’,” proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country…. Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

Taking every concession offered in the nuclear deal, and subsequently reneging in several vital respects on the final agreement, Iran’s leaders budged not an inch from their ultimate ambition – to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East, to sweep aside all Western-style democracies, and to impose their own Shi’ite version of Islam on the world.

As president, Donald Trump had no time for Obama’s aim of “reducing America’s power” (quite the reverse), nor for the Iranian regime, nor for the nuclear deal that was a keystone policy of Obama’s administration.  He could not immediately “tear it up”, in his own words, since there were five other signatories in addition to the US.  But finally, frustrated by Iran’s expansion of its missile capability, and by the evidence from Israel’s seizure of secret documents that demonstrated Iran’s continued adherence to its nuclear ambitions, Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018.

Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign promised to return to the nuclear deal provided Iran returned to full compliance with its provisions.  Some observers believed that this meant Biden, on becoming president, would negotiate a speedy US re-entry into the deal. They were to be disappointed.  Rejecting much that Trump stood for, Biden could nevertheless perceive the enormous improvement in the US’s prestige in the Middle East that he inherited from his predecessor. 

Consequently he and his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, have adopted a “softly, softly” approach to re-entering the deal.  Biden has given no indication of when ‒ or indeed if ‒ the US might do so, although he has suggested that fairly quick action could be possible if the Iranian regime returned to the original terms of the JCPOA.

Iran’s demand, though, was that all US sanctions must be lifted before it will return to its commitments under the deal. Biden’s response was firm.  The US will not lift its economic sanctions on Iran simply to get it back to the negotiating table.  Iran must act first, and it must return to full compliance with the terms of the deal.

Is Biden’s position as uncompromising as it appears? A far more conciliatory attitude to the idea of reviving the JCPOA can be read into Biden’s selection of Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the original deal, to serve as his envoy on Iran.  Blinken has announced that he is “building a dedicated team”, to be led by Malley, to tackle Washington’s relations with Iran.

Hard-line opponents of the Iranian regime see Malley as a key architect of the JCPOA, and fear Biden might be willing to sacrifice the security of the moderate Muslim world and of Israel to revive the nuclear deal. 

Past experience points a way out of Biden’s dilemma.  Appeasement of the regime is useless.  Iran has its own agenda.  It is pursuing domination of the Middle East and supports a Shi’ite terrorist network to achieve it.  The regime’s enmity toward Western democracy in general, and the US and Israel in particular, is fundamental. Equally unshakeable is its intention to acquire nuclear weapons.

Based on these factors, a return to a revised deal is feasible provided it contains in-built guarantees of compliance, and no loopholes permitting Iran the eventual achievement of nuclear arms. First indications are that the Bidden administration is working along these lines, but there is a long way to go.

Neville Teller read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. 

He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”

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