It’s easy to understand why Iran wants to play hardball with Biden now after the suffering of years of Trump’s sanctions. The problem is that Biden has to see a halt to enrichment as a crucial gesture. Is there a compromise?
The news that Joe Biden took steps recently to withdraw the specific actions by Donald Trump which led the U.S. to quit the JCPOA deal signed in 2015 is welcome by anyone who hopes for peace in the Middle East, but in many respects is nothing more than a diplomatic stunt with nothing really to glean from either side.
Most keen analysts knew that this was likely and Iranian officials were expecting as much. Some critics have even argued that it has put him in an even weaker negotiating position. But no matter.
In recent days, much backchannel chattering has been going on, with some messaging in the press from the Iranians of what they expect next, which is the real issue and the one to judge Biden on. Sanctions.
Iran’s foreign minister recently hinted that “action” will be taken if Trump’s sanctions against Iran – which have devastated its economy and cause excruciating hardship within Iran – are not lifted soon.
And here’s where it gets tricky.
Biden cannot simply do that, regardless of whether he sympathises with Iran’s thinking as it leaves him too vulnerable with no leverage in any further discussions to getting the so-called “Iran deal” back on its feet. And given that the Iranians know this, it is somewhat disingenuous to play for this at this stage, when all parties know that there has to be discussions now, with a heavyweight intermediary, who can offset risks of political embarrassment.
Biden’s in a tight spot as a recent telephone call to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, after 28 days in office, revealed that he has no magic wand to untangle the eclectic mess that Trump has left in the Middle East – in particular the normalisation of relations between some Arab countries and Israel called the Abraham Accords, which he will want recalibrated. Fine tuning is what is required. Although, in all fairness, Biden has made some bold moves in just a number of days to calm tensions in the region and show that the U.S. is back in the saddle and ready to call in the cavalry in the region, wherever it is needed.
He recently made it clear that he will not be dealing with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, the impetuous and unpredictable Mohamed bin Salman, in preference for the aging King Salman; he has suspended arms deals to the UAE and KSA in a bid to clip the wings of these two countries’ elites (in particular the UAE which he sees as the major problem in Libya), whilst making it patently clear that the war in Yemen must end immediately. And he has given clear signals to Turkey that, along with Egypt, it is on a short leash over its human rights record and its generally recalcitrant approach to relations with Washington.
There’s a new sheriff in town and Biden’s role is not going to be easy. His move to control both KSA and the UAE shows that their regional power plays are a big part of the problems of the region and that a new doctrine of human rights needs to be enforced to keep them in line. Much harder and more complicated is his friendship with Israel and Netanyahu. Here there are going to be issues which both leaders will clash on and Iran – and how to deal with the country post Trump – is going to be a thorn in the side of the Biden administration who are left picking up the pieces of a belligerent strategy largely executed in the region by Jared Kushner and his partner in crime MbS in Riyadh. The failure to call Netanyahu in his first few days in office is a lucid message that the friendship that the Israeli leader had with Trump is not going to be replicated with Biden, clearly.
And furthermore, the recent downgrading of MbS is another coded message which the young crown prince will heed only too well: You can be replaced by one of your foes who we can install.
Unlike the UAE, which hastily packaged together a few new laws which made it look like it was modernising, when Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential elections, KSA did nothing but wait. MbS had an opportunity to make a token gesture to Biden and he chose to normalise relations once again with Qatar, which was not enough for the U.S. president to cut him some slack. The smarter move would have been to release women who had been arrested for protesting against the kingdom’s human rights record, in particular on the slow pace of reform for women themselves. A blunder from a hesitant and insecure leader who clearly doesn’t see wisdom in advisors or even diplomacy, MbS now will pay heavily for this as discussions over Iran, Yemen and human rights will be made in the coming weeks with his father.
The Iranians of course are watching all this at a distance and think that they are holding all the cards on the Iran Deal. This however is also a mistake. While it is true that they have been the victims of Trump’s juvenile long-running tantrum with Obama, it is also true that they cannot use their suffering as a tool of blackmail against the Biden camp. They have to also show that they will not be petulant and try to resolve the issue by a “two wrongs make a right” ideology. Iran has turned to the EU to mediate, which is a smart move, but someone will have to guarantee their cheque. It’s hard to see how a lame EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell – who used to send MEPs to sleep when he was parliament president before – is going to conjure up the magic required. Iran needs to be smart now when the stakes are so high. If it continues its uranium enrichment, it will force Biden to actually enforce the secondary sanctions with countries which have billions to pump into the Tehran central bank to lift the country out its demise. This would be a catastrophic error of judgement on the part of Iran’s leaders who might be thinking that Biden might be soft on them over the secondary sanctions and will roll on his back for them. Yet Biden, despite being much more pragmatic towards Iran knows only too well that he has to insist on a commitment made from Iran up front on enrichment before a new Iran Deal can be struck – especially now that the present regime is playing the role of a vitriolic victim. Of course it’s normal for the Iranians to ask for more this time round, but it won’t help their case if they dig in their heels over enrichment and the EU will want to convince them of the lack of judgment on this point. There is even a strong argument on their side that any deal struck with Biden could be overturned in four years’ time if a Trump-like character were to enter the Oval Office. And so, screwing up Trump’s withdrawal provision is really nothing in real terms for the Iranians. Biden needs to work closely with the EU to get Iran to back down on enrichment otherwise Trump will get what he wanted all along, which is to make Iran a genuine threat to security in the region, rather than the perceived one in previous years.