Biden’s chance to stabilise US-Iran relations post Trump-Era

Navjit Singh | Updated: February 10, 2021, 12:22 IST

Biden’s chance to stabilise US-Iran relations post Trump-Era. Iran Nuclear deal and JCPOA

After the turbulent four years of American foreign policy under Trump administration with high level of unpredictability that created havoc in the world politics, US President Biden has pledged to reverse several of the previous administration’s decisions, beginning with the Iran Nuclear Deal, popularly known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Not only Trump’s foreign policy, but also domestic policies were guided by Trumpism – a new theoretical ideology denoting Trump’s idiosyncratic actions without realising their detrimental effects. This mind-set forced the political scholars to denote the four years of trump in White House as Trump-Era, indicating that these four years caused as much damage to America’s foreign policy as it did to the established world order.

The unilateral withdrawal by former President Trump from JCPOA strained the already terrible relations between Iran and US, therefore, Biden’s path to restore the Obama-period nuclear deal would be extremely difficult.

President Biden is eyeing an urgent restoration of the Iran Nuclear Deal, while US’s new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan has suggested that a faster timeline than the administration has previously outlined is being framed.

“We are going to have to address Iran’s other bad behaviour, malign behaviour, across the region, but from our perspective, a critical early priority has to be to deal with what is an escalating nuclear crisis as they move closer and closer to having enough fissile material for a weapon,” Sullivan said. “And we would like to make sure that we re-establish some of the parameters and constraints around the program that have fallen away over the course of the past two years,” he added.

What is JCPOA? A brief history

After the intensive and lengthy diplomatic talks for years amidst the continuous animosity between Iran and the western countries, at dawn of July 14, 2015 a news broke which everybody on either side of hemisphere were hoping. Final details of the JCPOA or Iran N-deal were finalised. The accord was notable in the history of nuclear proliferation, and the deal was considered an agreement that could change the dynamics in the Middle East.

It provided hope to citizens of the world that differences can only be resolved through diplomacy, and not by wars. One such citizen was Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif who had tweeted back in 2015, “#IranDeal is not a ceiling, but a solid foundation. We must now begin to build on it.” 

The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord reached between Iran and five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), along with Germany – collectively known as P5 + 1.

It had gone into effect in January 2016, and imposed restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. During the regime of former monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran had committed to forgo the development of nuclear weapons, and even signed the Non-proliferation Treaty sponsored by Nixon administration. 

Though after the overthrow of Reza Shah Regime, which was an ally of US in the Middle East as per the Baghdad Pact, and the subsequent 1979 Islamic revolution, which established Ruhollah Kheominei’s Islamic clergy regime, the leaders of Iran who were hard-liners against US and western powers on the ideological basis tried to secretly pursue the nuclear technology.

Under JCPOA terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program, and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. Iran has suffered from a dizzying and complex set of international economic sanctions as punishment for its nuclear development by the western powers prior to the deal. The deal in the nutshell was that the sanctions would be lifted in exchange for the tight restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. The provisions of the deal formed as such that it would make functionally impossible for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon till the accord remains in place.

Biden’s chance to stabilise US-Iran relations post Trump-Era. Iran nuclear deal and JCPOA.

Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal

Riding on the anti-Iran and anti-JCPOA rhetoric, Donald Trump campaigned on the promises to dismantle the Iran nuclear accord, referring to it as “the worst deal ever.” An electoral victory in 2016 allowed the Trump administration to fulfil its promise, and thus, it changed the dynamics of Middle East for the worse.

In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord, thanks to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consistent lobbying against the deal from the beginning. Regional players like Israel and Saudi Arabia provided a strong backing to Trump administration for the withdrawal from the deal which would further weaken Iran’s influence in the region.

“This was a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” a grim-faced Mr. Trump said in an 11-minute address from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. “It did not bring calm, it did not bring peace, and it never will,” he added.

Biden’s chance to stabilise US-Iran relations post Trump-Era. Iran nuclear deal and JCPOA.

These steps in compliance with accord foreclosed the Iran’s pathways to build nuclear weapons. Trump insisted that the limits placed on the Iran’s nuclear fuel production according to the deal were inadequate. The administration presented no evidence that Iran was not complying with its obligations, but the former president called the deal as “worst deal ever” due to the couple of reasons. Firstly, Trump had a contention with the provisions of ‘sunset clauses’ – the deal is not permanent, the limits were to expire in 2030. Secondly, the deal does not address the threat of Iran’s ballistic missiles development or its malign behaviour in the region. Iran supports militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon which is principal enemy of the Israel, a known US ally.

Consequences of withdrawal 

After withdrawing from agreement, US re-instated all the sanctions it had waived as part of the nuclear accord. Therefore, US re-impose oil sanctions, and new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, crippling the national economy while Iran complied with provisions of the deal and kept restricted its development of nuclear capability for next one year.

Iran accused the United States of reneging on its commitments, and faulted Europe for submitting to US’ unilateralism. The withdrawal not only increased geopolitical tensions with Iran, but also strained the transatlantic relations with European allies, undermining their positions in the deal which came into effect to hold Iran accountable. 

Trump’s strategy to confront Iran, and bring it back to the table to negotiate the total dismantle of its nuclear program – eliminating sunset clauses – and address its malign activities was to impose maximum pressure to gain maximum leverage ahead of diplomatic discussions while avoiding a military entanglement in the future. This is popularly known as ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. 

JCPOA provided a highly intrusive inspection regime to check Iran’s compliance with the agreement, but Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has failed to produce concessions from Iran, let alone bring it to the negotiation table for discussion on the Iran’s other malign activities.

The nuclear deal provided the P5+1 with greater inspection and accountability tools to ensure Iran is not foraging on the path of building nuclear weapons. Provisions of the deal would have made almost impossible for Iran to violate the agreement without facing serious blow from all the countries including European powers, which are still the participants in the deal. The deal would also have given greater international legitimacy to US to use hard power against Iran if the latter had resumed the nuclear program.

Pressure from multilateral sanctions successfully brought Iran to the negotiating table, but US retaliatory unilateral sanctions have failed to produce a replacement agreement or stop Iran from ramping up its nuclear program.

In response to the United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, and subsequent re-instatement of nuclear and other sanctions, Iran has steadily reduced its compliance with the JCPOA.

Iran increased its uranium enrichment, advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size. Moreover, maximum pressure has failed to stop Iran from supporting proxies that further destabilise the region.

The provocations from both sides increased the tensions between Iran and US. Many political scholars had even predicted a Middle East war after the tanker blast incident in Persian Gulf in mid-2019. The list of Iranian provocations in the same year also goes long, beginning from the downing of an American drone, mine attacks on ships in the Strait of Hormuz, and a cruise missile strike on Saudi oil facilities.

On the nuclear front, Iran’s slow but steady effort to shrink its breakout timeline raises alarm bells in Western capitals without provoking an American or Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities. 

The assassination of Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian military commander, in January 2020 was the peak of these provocations on the either side which followed the downward spiralling effect pushing the region to the brink of a catastrophic war amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Subsequently, the assassination of eminent scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November worked as a fuel in the confrontation. 

Conclusion

Despite the welter of conflicting actions and statements coming from senior Iranian leaders in recent times, it seems that Tehran would welcome a quick return to the JCPOA by the incoming Biden administration.

However, Iran appears to be signalling that the opportunity to do so will be brief, and if the United States does not immediately resume compliance with the terms of the original agreement, that window will close quickly and perhaps permanently. Although such compliance must be verified, a US return to the JCPOA is the best way to incentivise Iran to comply with the deal.

The Biden administration’s best approach will be to pursue complementary near-term and long-term strategies simultaneously to bring Iran back into compliance with the limits on its nuclear program, while raising the stakes of Tehran’s adventurism in the region and paving the way to a follow-on agreement.

The JCPOA offers the best path for the United States to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, and it was working until the withdrawal. The reality today is much starker, and Iran is closer to building a nuclear weapon. The steps Iran has taken in violation of the JCPOA, however, are reversible — Iran can return to compliance with the deal.

The only way to achieve another agreement in the future — including one that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and other security threats Iran poses — is for the United States to return to the JCPOA and implement its part of the deal. Re-joining the JCPOA advances US national security, restores US credibility, and should be a top priority for the Biden administration.

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