Whereas the newly elected US president does want to revive the JCPOA with Iran, the process is far from straightforward. Joe Biden, who is looking to make America “great” again at global level, sees this revival as a crucial mark of America’s re-entry as a “responsible” super-power, reversing the way it was largely left out of many important conflict zones due to the previous administration’s inward looking “make American great again” policy orientation. Biden’s outward looking “make America great again” involves active involvement in global politics, not as an extension of the state of Israel as it was during the trump era but as the United States. The irony, however, is that the Joe Biden administration, whilst it wants to revive the pact, is, as it stands today, completely unwilling to lift the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran after pulling the US out of the agreement.
In other words, Joe Biden wants to leverage the Trump era sanctions to make Iran return to full compliance with the agreement. While Trump wanted to use this leverage, a part of his “maximum pressure” strategy, to force Iran to come to the negotiating table to re-negotiate the deal, Biden wants to use the same leverage to force Iran to revive the pact and start negotiations afresh to address “other areas of concern”, which were never a part of the deal.
As US politics would have it, it is too early for Biden to appear “soft” on Iran. In other words, one important reason why Joe Biden is insisting on keeping sanctions is part of the way he wants to present himself as a “tough guy” to the world and to the Americans. Accordingly, Biden’s two top officials, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Avril Haines Director of National Intelligence, have both said in their confirmation hearings that the US is still a “long way” from a quick return to the pact.
In his first news conference as the Secretary of State, Blinken confirmed that US sanctions on Iran were to stay for some time, showing how the new administration was essentially continuing the policies of the previous administration, including an unabated show of deep animosity towards Iran.
This is also reflected by the way many in the US Congress are already resisting the revival of JCPOA. Already, the appointment of Rob Malley, who currently heads the International Crisis Group, as Biden’s Iran envoy is under a lot of political fire from the far right. Malley, who was previously involved in the negotiations leading to JCPOA in 2015, is considered a “conflict resolution specialist.” He is being seen as a “pro-Iran” and an “anti-Israel” official who would once again, like JCPOA, produce a deal massively advantageous for Iran only.
However, Malley’s credentials notwithstanding, his ability to resolve the conflict depends entirely on the position that the Biden administration takes. So far, it has made clear that it wants Iran to return to full compliance before it can lift sanctions. The Biden administration is, however, not simply looking to revive the pact as it stood in 2016 when Trump came into power. It wants to use this revival as a platform to start a new round of negotiations to bring Iran’s other military and defense programs under the purview of this deal.
On February 8, White House press secretary confirmed that “if Iran comes into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same, and then use that as a platform to build a larger and stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”
This position is significantly different from the position Joe Biden had advertised during his election campaign. In an essay that he wrote for the CNN in September 2020, Biden did not attach strings to the question of lifting US sanctions on Iran. In fact, Biden never even mentioned that Iran will have to return to full compliance for the US to lift sanctions.
The fact that the Biden administration is now attaching pre-conditions speaks volumes about how the new administration is not looking to immediately reverse Trump era policies. If the new administration had really wanted to reverse Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, the starting point would have been a full US compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.
Biden’s insistence on keeping US sanctions in place, which is itself a clear violation of the JCPOA, reveals that the new president has effectively adopted Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy and that he intends to use this to his advantage vis-à-vis Iran. For Iran, therefore, Biden is already no different from Trump.
Again, Biden the-candidate thought differently of the “maximum pressure” when he said that recent developments have “proven that Trump’s Iran policy is a dangerous failure. At the United Nations, Trump could not rally a single one of America’s closest allies to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Next, Trump tried to unilaterally reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, only to have virtually all the UN security council members unite to reject his gambit.”
Biden the-President, however, thinks that it is not a good idea for the US to return to full compliance and that Iran, which never violated the deal even once before the US sanctions were imposed, must return to full compliance. There is, therefore, little gainsaying that such a position can be only taken with a view to un-necessarily complicating an already complicated enough a scenario.
As it stands, Iran, for its own sake, will continue to confront the US “maximum pressure” with “maximum resistance.” Iranian parliament has already passed legislation to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities in 60 days if certain US sanctions are not lifted.
With the Biden administration having fully adopted the “maximum pressure” for now, there is little gainsaying that Iran will not change its current posture. And, with Biden administration following the same policy vis-à-vis Iran as the Trump administration did, there are little chances of any meaningful and substantial policy changes vis-à-vis other Middle East states including Saudia and Israel.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.