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There’s probably no country in the world outside the United States that was more affected by the November election than Iran. President Biden’s victory and entry into the White House was expected to mark a major shift in U.S. strategy toward the regime in Tehran. After weathering the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and rounds of asphyxiating sanctions, Iranian officials hoped for a change in the geopolitical winds and some economic relief.
Biden and his allies say they want to undo the diplomatic harm caused by former president Donald Trump’s unilateral reimposition of sanctions on Iran, which happened over the objections of European partners. Along with rejoining the Paris climate accord, salvaging the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump abrogated would demonstrate the Biden administration’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy with long-standing allies. The Biden camp also says Trump’s hard-line tactics failed to achieve their stated goal of curbing Iran’s malign activities abroad and drove it to amass a larger stockpile of enriched uranium than before Trump took office.
But a return to the status quo that existed before Trump’s term looks tricky. Although Biden is committed to re-engagement with Iran, his aides have yet to indicate clearly when and how, suggesting that the ball is in Iran’s court. At his confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would wait until it was convinced that Tehran was scaling back its revived enrichment operations and returning once more to compliance with the pact.
“We are a long way from there,” Blinken said. “We would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there.”
The Iranians want to see the Americans take the first major step. “The administration should begin by unconditionally removing, with full effect, all sanctions imposed, reimposed, or relabeled since Trump took office,” wrote Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a Foreign Affairs op-ed last week. “In turn, Iran would reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.”
Zarif added that a “return to the table will be jeopardized” if Washington and its European partners insist on linking a portfolio of other concerns — including Iran’s ballistic missile program and ongoing support for proxy militias elsewhere in the Middle East — to the resumption of talks around the nuclear deal.
As the Trump administration fired off a final salvo of punitive actions against Tehran, the regime responded by stepping up the purity of some of its enriched uranium to five times the level permitted under the nuclear deal. In November, the Iranian parliament passed a law that would restrict U.N. inspectors’ access to key nuclear facilities in the absence of sanctions relief. It may be implemented as early next month.
“It is clear that we don’t have many months ahead of us,” Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, told Reuters earlier this month, warning that time was running out for diplomacy to get back on course. “We have weeks.”
This standoff between Biden and Zarif’s boss, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is made more fraught by domestic pressures within both countries. Republicans and supporters of the Trump administration’s approach appear to be waiting to make political hay of any perceived concession to Iran and have already started accusing Biden appointees of being soft on the regime. They are joined by officials from Iran’s regional adversaries — Israel and the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who say that Biden should build off the perceived leverage achieved by Trump.
Some analysts of Iranian politics argue that this leverage is not what it’s cracked up to be and that the regime has proved remarkably resilient despite the squeeze of sanctions. With Iranian presidential elections slated for this summer, a camp of hard-liners opposed to rapprochement with the United States already looks ascendant.
“The Iranian president has very difficult months ahead of him before he leaves office,” wrote Saeid Jafari for the Atlantic Council’s Iran Source blog. “Rouhani’s influential political rivals will do their best to deprive him of reviving the [nuclear deal] before the end of his government.”
But Iran watchers in Washington caution against worrying too much about internal political fissures within the Islamic Republic. “I would not hold the Iranian presidential election as a serious reason for urgency on our side,” said Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution during a webinar last week where she argued that Tehran’s strategy at present was aimed at goading Biden quickly back into the deal. “The Biden administration should resist the temptation to be drawn into crisis diplomacy with the Iranians.”
What Maloney and other experts in Washington advocate is a more measured approach that cools tensions without immediately lifting all of Trump’s sanctions. But a risky game of brinkmanship may now unfold, which will test cooperation between the new U.S. administration and its European partners.
“Tehran would be wrong to assume that [the Biden] administration would hesitate to maintain or even intensify pressure on the Islamic Republic — this time in coordination with European allies — if it were to issue excessive demands,” noted a report from the International Crisis Group.
Even if the regime is intact, Iranian society is paying a price. “The cost of US sanctions have so far been felt most by ordinary Iranians, who have been hit with high inflation,” wrote Iran scholars Ellie Geranmayeh and Esfandyar Batmanghelidj in an opinion piece for CNN. “The worsening economic situation did not lead to regime collapse or capitulation as the Trump administration had bet on, but instead contributed … to protests that were met with brutal force by the security apparatus.”
My colleague Jason Rezaian argued that Biden ought to make the “concerns and aspirations of ordinary Iranians central to his policy.” But after the difficulties of the Trump years, many Iranians are pessimistic about the way ahead.
“I do not think Biden’s presidency is going to make any important change in our lives,” said Shabnam, 41, a teacher in Tehran who spoke to my colleagues on the condition that only her first name be used for security reasons. “To be honest with you, the degree and depth of hopelessness and despair in Iran is so high that I am not optimistic about any action by any Iranian or American politician.”