NO LEVERAGE FOR BIDEN ON IRAN
Ramin Jahanbegloo DECEMBER 02, 2020 00:15 IST
His administration would need more than promises of sanctions relief to bring Iran to the negotiating table
The murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has not only exposed the vulnerabilities of Iran’s military intelligence, but also triggered a series of questions concerning the future of Iran-U.S. relations after the recent election of Joe Biden as President of the U.S. Many inside Iran and around the world have pointed the finger at Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, which is suspected to have killed Iranian nuclear scientists earlier this decade. In the Mossad’s point of view, Fakhrizadeh was the brain behind the militarisation of Iran’s nuclear programme and therefore represented an imminent threat to the security of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even mentioned him by name during a May 2018 press conference while revealing secretly stolen documents on Iran’s nuclear programme. Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump retweeted Israeli writer Yossi Melman’s tweet that said Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is a “psychological and professional blow” to Iran. As for Mr. Biden, he has been silent on the matter. The reason is not because he does not want to interfere in presidential matters until he assumes office; the truth is that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination could easily damage and diminish any hope for future dialogues with Iran.
No easy solutions
Consequently, the Iranian authorities also find themselves in a difficult position. There are no easy solutions to the challenges posed by Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. At a time when Iran is weighing its options for taking revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s death, its political scene seems divided. While the Iranian hard-liners are shouting for an immediate “harsh revenge”, President Hassan Rouhani has announced that his government will not fall for Israel’s trap by responding hastily. Iran’s response will depend on how the dialogue with the future U.S. administration will evolve. That said, it is no secret that many in Tel Aviv and Riyadh are against any efforts to revitalise U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Israel has repeatedly underlined the fact that returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would be a mistake. Even so, Israel and Saudi Arabia are confident that it won’t be easy to put the nuclear deal back together in a way that can last.
Despite the encouraging statements by both the Biden camp and officials in the Rouhani administration, there is a remarkable degree of scepticism surrounding the prospect of the U.S. returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the Iranian population is hoping that Mr. Biden and his group of experts will enable a return to the short period between the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016 and the election of Mr. Trump in November that year. Addressing the possible impact of U.S. elections on U.S.-Iran relations, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “We follow a sensible, calculated policy which cannot be affected by changes of personnel.” The policy to which he was referring is that of engaging in a deal with Iran while respecting its vital strategic interests.
Importance of the IRGC
What is certain is that the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in an American drone attack in January 2020 did not have a major impact on Iran’s projection of power in the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) still has the upper hand in many operations taking place in Iraq and Lebanon through the Shi’a militias, the Hashd al Sha’abi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), Kata’ib Hezbollah or the Lebanese Hezbollah. Despite the popular rage against Iranian interference in Baghdad and Beirut, the IRGC continues to play an important role in shaping Iranian foreign policy in West Asia. The IRGC is the unique pre-eminent power in Iran which is capable of replacing Ayatollah Khamenei after his death and is likely to impact the future of U.S.-Iran relations. As such, there is little likelihood of any flexibility towards the Iranian regime from the American side while the IRGC has total control of Iranian domestic and foreign policies.
Last but not the least, the end of the Trump administration does not necessarily mean the end of economic sanctions and “maximum pressure” on Iran. It is true that Iranians are suffering from rampant inflation and a decline in the value of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar, but Mr. Trump’s sanctions have not coerced the Iranian government into talks. Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA followed by economic coercion offer Mr. Biden no real leverage on Iran. Iran’s adaptability to sanctions pressure shows quite well that the future Biden administration would need more than promises of sanctions relief — promises to bring the Iranian policymakers to the negotiating table. Mr. Biden will face a tough road ahead, especially if an element of the IRGC wins in the next year’s presidential election in Iran.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana