Biden Holds the Cards on Iran, But Will He Play Them?

| Ambassador Gary Grappo
Gary Grappo
Former U.S. Ambassador to Oman

Gary Grappo is a former U.S. ambassador who held senior positions including Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman; and Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He’s currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at the Korbel School for International Studies, University of Denver.

It would be unwise for President-elect Joe Biden to immediately rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka, the Iran nuclear accord. The situations in Iran, in the US and in the Middle East today aren’t what they were in 2015 or 2018. As conditions have evolved, so must approaches to the problem. In his case, however, Biden holds cards that give him the upper hand.

Among the many major foreign policy challenges US President-elect Joe Biden faces when he takes office next month, none is more fraught with suspicion, doubt and uncertainty on all sides than Iran and the Islamic Republic’s surging efforts to reconstitute it’s nuclear weapons program.

In his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden pledged to rejoin the JCPOA, which Barack Obama negotiated with the other members of the P5-plus-1 – Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – in 2015. President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018. Today, the JCPOA remains barely on life support as Iran ramps up the program it had pledged to mothball, the US imposes ever punishing sanctions on an already badly hobbled Iranian economy, and the European signatories try desperately to keep it alive until Mr. Biden assumes office.

Crushing Sanctions, Debilitated Economy and Restless Populace

One of the most significant differences now is that Trump’s sanctions have had a much greater impact on Iran than anyone anticipated. This stems from his decision to impose not only primary sanctions, i.e., those on Iran, Iranians and Iranian entities, but also secondary sanctions, or penalties on foreign businesses, banks and individuals who do business with Iran. The effect has been devastating for the Iranian economy. Oil exports have fallen from around 2.5 million barrels per day to about 600,000-700,000 per day, depending on how successful exporters and importers are at disguising their transactions. Whatever the volume, they’re nowhere near what they need to be in order to sustain the country’s hard currency reserves and purchase the many imports on which the country depends.

As a result of the oil clampdown and the downstream economic effects, Iran’s economy will have shrunk by some 17 percent between Trump’s withdrawal decision in 2018 and the end of 2020, and a decline of more than five percent in 2020 alone. It’s currency, the rial, has an officially set exchange rate of 42,000 to the US dollar. However, it’s trading value has varied between 240,000-320,000, a fall over 400 percent since January 2018. As many as 30 million Iranians may be unemployed and, in a nation of 84 million, up to 60 million live at or below the poverty line. Banks are closing, many more are shuttering branches and hundreds of businesses have shut their doors for good.

A combination of America’s painful sanctions and incompetent economic management has brought Iran’s economy to its knees. Trump’s “maximum pressure” appears to have overcome Iran’s “maximum resistance.” But the purpose of the sanctions was not to inflict suffering on Iranians. Ultimately, sanctions were intended to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to reach a more comprehensive agreement that addressed the faults of the JCPOA. These include missile restrictions, longer time horizons for nuclear technology research and development, a more comprehensive inspection regime, and an end to Iran’s support for malign groups throughout the region. None of that has happened, however. Neither Iran’s behavior nor actions have changed.

The challenge facing President-Elect Biden is not necessarily to get a new agreement, as vitally important as that is. Rather, it is to change Iran’s behavior, a far greater challenge. However, the advantage is his, if he plays his cards right.

Use Europe to Earn Trust

The first step in attacking this challenge is understanding that whatever trust there may have been between the two countries is gone. Trump’s withdrawal confirmed all the dire predictions of Iran’s hardliners that the US could not be trusted. They will now call the shots, or at least have the ear of the Supreme Leader, a self-confessed hardliner. Face-to-face discussions are off the table for the near term, and likely for all or most of 2021.

Biden and his nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will have to turn to America’s friends among the P5+1, the UK, France and Germany, to serve as intermediaries. That is not only a useful but also necessary card they have no choice but to play. But they will also have to arm the Europeans with something to take to the Iranians as a show of good faith, e.g., the lifting of some of the more recent sanctions imposed by the current administration. Even that may not be enough. But the Europeans cannot go to the Iranians empty handed.

Whether it’s the Europeans delivering the offer or Washington – if and when it manages to speak directly to Tehran – the Americans will have to be more than tough. They’ll need to be smart and understand what is motivating Tehran, perhaps more now than in 2015. Iran needs to get out from under these sanctions, and not simply because of the economic pain.

The Iranian leadership is also suffering politically. Demonstrators in the thousands in over 20 cities took to the streets late last year and early this year to protest their nation’s declining economic fortunes and prospects and also the corruption and incompetence of the political leadership. Like most Middle Eastern governments, the government responded with brutal force as opposed to meaningful corrective solutions. Popular dissatisfaction and anger still simmer just below the surface. Once Iran emerges from its coronavirus panic and restrictions, we should expect Iranians back in the streets. This becomes more important as they approach the June 2021 presidential elections.

Iran needn’t show a complete lifting of sanctions, which is highly unlikely by June of 2021. But it has to reassure the Iranian people that it is on track to reach that point and a subsequently improved economic picture sometime within the next 18-24 months. That means talking seriously with the Americans, which is exactly what Biden and company want and need.

Regional Allies, Congress Are Biden’s Friend

The next card Mr. Biden may play is the regional card. One of the reasons that the JCPOA did not work was because America’s key Middle East allies did not support it. Israel publicly and harshly criticized it. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States made their objections known more diplomatically. In order to get these governments on board with their approach, Biden and Blinken will have to make those governments a part of the process, though unlikely in face-to-face talks. But they must be able to feel that their interests are heard and concerns taken into account. Importantly, the administration must make clear to the Iranians that any new agreement it may negotiate with Tehran will fair no better than the last without the explicit support of these governments. This may seem daunting for the Iranians. However, if the failed JCPOA taught the US anything, it is that it cannot negotiate a genuine, lasting agreement without its allies, both those within the P5+1 as well as those in the region. Tehran needs to understand that, too.

Mr. Biden’s final card is his “ace in the hole,” and one many might least expect. That is the US Congress. The failure to garner sufficient Congressional support for his efforts ultimately doomed Barak Obama’s JCPOA. Joe Biden cannot allow that to happen if he hopes to get an agreement with Tehran and this time make it last. Obama repeated the tragic error of Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that negotiated the end to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. In his well-intentioned effort to “make the world safe for democracy,” Wilson proposed and earned the support of many nations at the time to establish the League of Nations. But those efforts came to naught when he returned to Washington. The US Senate, which had been consulted little throughout the negotiations, refused to ratify the treaty (by a mere seven votes). Without the treaty’s prime backer, the US, which then foolishly turned isolationist, the League could not last. Presidents Wilson and Obama committed the same cardinal error.

Mr. Biden and his Secretary of State cannot do the same. They must find a way for key Senators and Members of the House of Representatives to be included in the discussion and debates among the US leadership over any new agreement with Iran. Even if a final agreement is not submitted for congressional approval, Biden must be able to show that he has the support of the Congress to conclude an agreement. Anything less risks falling into the same trap Obama encountered and the very real possibility that a disputed accord will be overturned or rejected by a subsequent US administration.

That is the very argument Biden’s negotiators must also make to their Iranian counterparts. Tehran will surely want an accord that they can count on to last. Without Congress’ implicit endorsement, Iran cannot be sure. Making that case may be the strongest card Biden has to play with Iran. Unless all of America’s – and its allies’ – concerns are satisfactorily addressed, Tehran will never be certain that the next US president will not withdraw.

One of the first rules of negotiation is never surrender an advantage. Joe Biden and Antony Blinken hold several. They should not hesitate to play them if they expect to conclude a satisfactory agreement with Iran that can outlast the Biden presidency.

Read also Iran: Assassination and Retaliation and A Consequential Killing in Tehran, exclusively in The Cipher Brief


The Author is Gary Grappo

Gary Grappo is a former U.S. ambassador who held senior positions including Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman; and Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a career member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, he served as Envoy and Head of Mission of the Office of the Quartet Representative, the Honorable Mr. Tony Blair, in... Read More

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