Hassan Aslam Shad
Use of force and the threat thereof has been the predominant theme in U.S.- Iran relations since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. The future trajectory of U.S.-Iran relations and the Biden administration’s potential embrace of the Iran nuclear deal could very well be shaped by the kinetic and non-kinetic leverage that each country holds, or no longer holds, over the other.
After Joe Biden becoming U.S. President, his campaign promise to restore the Iran nuclear deal – abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018 – has evoked hopes of a US-Iran détente and a possible return to the Obama days when a ‘bad deal’ despite its flaws was preferred over ‘no deal’. The flurry of early statements coming out of the U.S., Iran, and other countries in the region, have stirred hopes and anxieties that are attached to a potential deal with Iran. But a return to the negotiating table may not be easy or happen overnight.
In his first statement since assuming office, on 7th February President Biden refused to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran in a bid to get it to return to the negotiating table and, instead, pressed on with the demand that Iran first stop its uranium enrichment. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayotollah Ali Khamenei retorted that Iran’s return to compliance with the 2015 deal is contingent on the U.S. lifting sanctions.
Lost in the jarring noise of this back-and-forth are the global efforts that had gone into stitching together one of the most difficult multilateral compromises in recent history: the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – short for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA –signed in 2015 between the P5 +1 countries (U.S., U.K., Germany, France, China, and Russia) and Iran. It was in May 2018 that the U.S. announced its pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal which former President Trump had derided as the ‘worst deal ever negotiated’, one that provided a cover to Iran’s nuclear and regional strategic ambitions.
With Biden at the helm of affairs, Iran is pushing for the 2015 deal to be restored in its original form i.e., without the introduction of any new terms or parties. It has termed resuscitating the 2015 deal a ‘very small’ window of opportunity. Does this leave the U.S., and the world for that matter, with days to latch onto Iran’s offer, failing which
all bets are off?
Taming an incalcitrant Iran that has become all too used to weathering storms isn’t exactly the foreign policy challenge a U.S. president would have wished for in the early days of his presidency. The Iran Sword of Damocles that hangs overhead presents the toughest foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration.
A boulder in the away of a possible deal with Iran is the Abraham Accords signed last year. A brainchild of the Trump administration, the Abraham Accords has brought Israel and U.A.E. in an unlikely but tight geostrategic embrace, with strong behind the scenes support of regional heavy weights such as Saudi Arabia. What has united these three countries is what they vehemently oppose: Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions. With more Gulf countries likely to join hands as a hedge against the actual or perceived risks from Iran, the Abraham Accords is a geostrategic minefield that the Biden Administration would have to carefully navigate.
Equally hard it would be for President Biden to garner bipartisan support in the U.S. and a consensus within his own administration for a return to the 2015 deal. Like hardliners in Iran who thought the 2015 deal was a bad idea, hawks in the U.S. who jockeyed against it in the first place would surely resist a new deal, or worse, a return to the 2015 status quo ante. It is therefore hardly surprising that President Biden has – for now – taken a tough line regarding a possible return to negotiations with Iran.
And yet, Iran’s leverage in this high stakes game of push and shove could be higher than ever. It has made surviving brutal U.S. sanctions a way of life. It has upped the ante through military exercises and new missile tests. Hardly a week passes by when the Iranian administration does not renew its resolve to stand tall despite mounting global pressure.
The use of force against Iran by the U.S. – which, over the years, has manifested in both the kinetic and non-kinetic domains – seems to have fizzled out. It has failed to rein in Iran. The assassination of General Soleimani by the U.S. in early 2020, instead of deterring Iran, catapulted it into action. It launched its own retaliatory strike on US troops in Iraq, something it called a ‘measured response to US aggression’. Iran justified its strike as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter – a much touted provision of the Charter that was invoked by the U.S. to justify its strike that led to General Soleimani’s assassination. To even out the score, Iran not only retaliated militarily but, like the U.S., it took a leaf from the international playbook to justify its strike.
Over the years, cracks have also appeared in the U.S.’s non-kinetic lawfare against Iran. During the Trump era, as part of the ‘maximum pressure campaign’ on Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department leveraged its global clout to severely curtail Iran’s access to the international financial system. Resultingly, sanctions were imposed on Iranian banks and financial institutions, Iranian entities, and persons (natural and juristic) and even Iran’s top leadership. These measures have also included U.S. threat of sanctions on countries dealing with Iran. The net result of these measures is Iran being left with a battered economy that is on the verge of a collapse.
Yet this ‘maximum pressure campaign’ has failed to break Iran’s resolve. With arguably nothing to lose, it has managed to weather the worst phase of the storm and appears hard pressed to drive a bargain on its terms.
None of this is intended to suggest that Iran is not desperate for a deal. It is. With its economy bludgeoned, it will latch onto the proverbial straw to avoid drowning. But instead of a new straw, Iran wants the same straw that bailed it out in 2015. And it has good reasons to play hard to get.
Iran has overall complied with the 2015 nuclear deal (as confirmed by the U.N. inspectors overseeing Iran’s uranium enrichment); (b) the original signatories to the deal (other than the U.S.) have kept it alive by not unilaterally disavowing their commitments with Iran; and (c) importantly, Iran did not abandon the deal despite its rather inchoate status in the aftermath of the U.S. pull-out. These factors plus the UN Security Council’s endorsement of the JCPOA through Resolution 2231 (2015) could be another talking point in the Biden administration looking to undo the damage caused to the U.S.’ global standing during the Trump era and its resolve to reposition the U.S. as the bellwether of the international rules based order.
It is therefore too early in the day to take President Biden’s statement at face value. It is meaningful insofar as it could be aimed at calling Iran’s bluff or playing to the gallery of the U.S.’s Middle Eastern allies. But taking it as the final word on U.S. foreign policy posture towards Iran would be to gloss over the hardest question before the Biden administration.
The ultimate question for the Biden administration – not unlike the one before President Obama when he signed the Iran deal – would be: is the U.S. better off today by arresting the pace of Iran’s uranium enrichment (albeit with no guarantee that it will eventually stop Iran from acquiring the bomb) or is it, instead, better off by having no deal (and risk a war, possibly in the near future, that could gravely threaten U.S. interests and those of its allies in the region).
While ‘no deal’ would be the preferred option of U.S. hawks that have been gunning for Iran’s head, with the U.S. fast running out of arrows in its lawfare quiver, and a new U.S. president with his plate full of domestic challenges, the U.S. would be left with little choice but to engage with Iran in some manner, albeit limited and behind closed doors. The statement by President Biden could very well be an attempt at testing the waters by adopting a maximalist position – a ploy Iran has mastered over the years despite U.S. efforts to make it a global pariah.
Hassan Aslam Shad is a practicing international lawyer based out of the Middle East. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, U.S.A.