25.09.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iran and the USA: What Happens Next?


It is now just two months until the presidential elections in the USA. Currently the verdict of the public opinion polls – which is always changing – suggests that Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, has a good chance of winning on November 3.  Those forecasts have led many politicians to speculate that the Democrat candidate may win, and that as president he may revive some of the international agreements the US negotiated in previous administrations, especially the so-called nuclear deal which the USA concluded with Iran back in 2015. Observers have also speculated that the result of the US elections this year may have an effect on the Iranian presidential elections in 2021. As for whether the many various opinions about next year’s elections in Iran prove to be correct – we will just have to wait and see. But one question is on everyone’s minds: whether a victory for Joe Biden would mean the revival of the nuclear deal.

Reader will remember that on May 8, 2018 Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and imposed major economic and financial sanctions on Iran. The US administration announced that it would follow a policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran in order to pressurize its leaders into entering into a new nuclear deal, promoted by Washington. Following the imposition of the sanctions, Iran’s strategy was to wait for a year, and then it began to withdraw from its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) as the deal is formally known. Mike Pompeo, the current US Secretary of State, set out 12 harsh conditions which must be included in the new nuclear deal with Iran.  Perhaps the most important of these was the insistence that Iran change its foreign policy in the region, discontinue its anti-missile program and submit to a number of permanent restrictions on its nuclear activities. It should be noted that the Democrats, who also believe that Iran’s power and influence in the region need to be reined in, are in full agreement with almost all of those conditions. Like the Republicans, they also see Tehran as a challenging and dangerous adversary in Western Asia.

It is rare for a country to undergo a transformation in its macro-economic strategies and foreign policy in a short period of time, and the USA is no exception to this rule. For this reason, the Democrats’ 2020 election manifesto, while raising the issue of reviving the nuclear deal, also emphasizes other restrictions, including the need for talks with Iran on its rocket program and on its status in the region. The Democrats recently published an 80-page 2020 Platform, which clearly sets out the majority of those restrictions as conditions for the renewal of the nuclear deal. The Democrats have also clearly stated that they will never rule out the possibility of sanctions or even a declaration of war against Iran. European countries also support the policy favored by both the Republican and Democratic Parties. But they have a different view on how it should be implemented. Right from the beginning of the nuclear talks with Iran, Europe played the role of a junior partner, and at no stage has it led the process.

Unlike the situation during Donald Trump’s presidency, it is expected that the process of involving Iran in the negotiation of a new deal will be speeded up if Joe Biden wins the election. If that happens it is possible that we will see the formation of a trans-Atlantic coalition against Iran. It seems as if the existing nuclear deal is pretty much over. Even if the Democrats win the elections, it is very unlikely that they will revive it without imposing new conditions. They will only return to the negotiating table if new clauses are added to the nuclear deal. It can thus be assumed that there will be no major difference between Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s approaches to the deal. While certain observers in Iran and elsewhere are pinning their hopes on the US elections as a solution to many global problems, the policies followed by both Republican and Democratic politicians suggest that the USA is unlikely to change its long-term strategy.

There remains one important question, which is whether Tehran has any intention of entering into talks at all: the Iranians claim that Washington first needs to change its course and lift all the sanctions imposed on Iran. That is their position at present, but it is possible that in future they may demand that Iran be compensated for all the losses which it has incurred as a result of the unjust American sanctions.  That is a risk that the new US administration, whatever its policy towards Iran, will have to bear in mind.

Tehran, which has managed to stand up to 40 years of pressure, will continue to stick to its uncompromising position concerning peace talks with Washington. Mahmoud Vaezi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Presidential Administration, has denied that Iran has any plans to negotiate with the USA. “We have no intention to enter into negotiations with the Americans, and we have set out our position very clearly.” Tehran has also stated the USA must accept that its unjustified policy of imposing sanctions on Iran was a mistake.

Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has insisted that the USA has a right to “restore” the UN sanctions, even though it was US President Donald Trump who withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and six major world powers, which was approved by the UN.  Russia and China, and America’s allies Britain, France and Germany, despite their many differences of opinion, are all united in viewing the USA’s conduct as illegal: a party cannot withdraw from a treaty and then cite the UN resolution approving that treaty as a ground for the reimposition of sanctions.

The Iranians, no strangers to the art of diplomacy, are, in turn, following a “stick and carrot” strategy. On the one hand, Iran is allowing the UN’s nuclear safety authority to inspect one of the two facilities to which it has finally, after a long stand-off, agreed to grant access, while, according to the IAEA’s quarterly report, continuing to increase its reserves of enriched uranium.  The IAEA inspected one of the sites and took samples from the local environment to determine the presence of radioactive materials, as stated in one of the two reports on the samples which were received by Reuters. According to the report, the IAEA inspectors will visit the other facility on a date later this month (September 2020), by prior arrangement with Iran, in order to take further environmental samples.

On the other hand, Iranian state television, citing an unnamed official, has announced that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian citizen, has been charged with a new offence, raising fears that she may have to return to prison again, following her temporary release.  This new charge was announced at a time when Britain and Iran are in talks concerning the return of a sum of £400 million ($530 million) – which was paid to Britain by the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for Chieftain tanks, which were never delivered.

The governments of both Iran and the UK deny that the two issues – the charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the return of the debt – are in any way related. But it is worth noting that in 2016, on the very day that Iran released four US citizens, the USA paid a similar amount to Iran. This spring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had served almost all of her five-year sentence, was temporarily released from prison because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In conclusion, the facts suggest that in choosing its future policy, Tehran will take into account its own interests, as it perceives them, and ignore any threats from the USA or other Western nations. And it is highly unlikely that the new US administration will be able to pressurize the Iranian leadership into doing what it wants.

Victor Mikhin, member-correspondent of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.


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