The Iran challenge: On Joe Biden’s Tehran policy

DECEMBER 04, 2020 00:02 IST

Biden must go back to nuclear deal without expecting further concessions from Tehran

When Joe Biden left the government in 2017 after having served as Barack Obama’s Vice-President for eight years, the U.S.-Iran relationship was on a totally different trajectory from what it is now. The U.S., along with other international powers, had signed a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 and both countries were cooperating in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq. Then came Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is called, and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Now, when Mr. Biden would assume the presidency on January 20, one of his most pressing early diplomatic challenges would be Iran. During the campaign, his promise was to take the U.S. back to the deal, but any such move would meet with strong opposition from its allies in West Asia, especially Israel.

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear physicist, last week has escalated tensions in the region. Iran has blamed Israel for the attack (Israel has neither confirmed nor denied reports of its involvement in the hit) and vowed revenge. Any retaliatory actions by Iran could cause a further flare-up, even leading to an open war, which could scuttle diplomatic options for a Biden administration.

After the election, Mr. Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to the nuclear deal. But he has said he will seek to extend the restrictions on Iran (15 years, according to the JCPOA) and discuss the Islamic Republic’s “malign” activities in West Asia. This suggests that Mr. Biden, like Mr. Trump did after unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement, would want amendments to the original accord. Mr. Trump had expected Iran to come to the table to renegotiate the deal, but Tehran did not give in to the pressure. When the Trump administration exerted ‘maximum pressure’, Iran came up with ‘maximum resistance’.

The tensions took both countries to the brink of war twice, first when Iran shot down an American drone over the Gulf in June 2019 and then when the U.S. killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January this year. The question now is whether Mr. Biden, with an emphasis on diplomacy, would manage to restore the lost trust between the two countries and be able to revive the deal. It is in everybody’s interest that the nuclear deal is revived which would not only deny Iran a path to the bomb but also restore some order in the region. Mr. Biden will have to reassert himself and rein in America’s allies from launching more provocative attacks on Iranian regime figures, and press Tehran to return to the terms of the agreement and further talks on the country’s regional activities in return for economic and security assurances. Iran, on its part, should observe strategic patience and give diplomacy another chance.

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