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Biden Contemplates New Iran Deal

During Joe Biden’s campaign, and then when he was elected president, the greatest concern of Israel and many its supporters was Biden’s desire to return to the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden will be pressured by the other signatories to rejoin the agreement, however, he laid out stringent requirements Iran must meet. Moreover, he has made clear he is not interested in the same deal; he wants a stronger one.

Specifically, he wants to return to negotiations “to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions” while making “an unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” He will rejoin the agreement “if Iran returns to strict compliance” and will “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities.” He said his administration will impose “targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program” and promised “ironclad support for Israel.”

In an interview with Tom Friedman, Biden said, “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” is to deal “with the nuclear program.” He added, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” He also said the U.S. could snap back sanctions if necessary, but that was Obama’s promise as well and the other signatories refused to implement them after Iran violated the agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no doubt about his government’s position. “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. In the past, however, before President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he had said he favored negotiation of a better deal.

The Gulf states that objected to the deal are also vehemently against the United States reversing Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and rejoining the agreement. Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Intelligence and chairman of the Saudi King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said, “Mr. President-elect, do not repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of the first deal. Any non-comprehensive deal will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region.” He added, “Iranian disruptive regional behavior in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, by attacking, directly and indirectly, the oil installations, is as much of a threat as is its nuclear program.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said the Gulf states expect to be consulted before any new agreement is negotiated. “I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a buildup of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.”

The U.K., France, and Germany are anxious for the U.S. to rejoin the deal so they can pursue commercial interests in Iran. They, too, however, realize there is no going back to the original agreement and that a new one must be negotiated that addresses Iran’s missile development, sponsorship of terror, and malign activities in the region. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for example, said:

A return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of “nuclear agreement plus,” which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region. Iran also needs to play a different role in the region. We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran.

He added, “The decisive factor will be whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran.”

The Iranians, meanwhile, have said they will not change their policy and are demanding the United States pay them as much as $200 billion to compensate for the economic losses caused by sanctions. “We once tried the path of having the sanctions lifted and negotiated several years, but this got us nowhere,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “They interfere in regional affairs; they tell us not to intervene. And while Britain and France have nuclear missiles, they tell us not to have missiles. What does it have to do with you? You should first correct yourselves.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said he is not opposed to renewed talks, but will not “renegotiate what we already negotiated.”

Analysts believe it will be difficult to renegotiate the agreement for several other reasons. Iran, for example, is likely to demand the end of sanctions related to human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorism in addition to lifting those related to the nuclear program. At a minimum, Iran expects to be allowed to sell its oil. Meanwhile, the elements the U.S. wants included in a new deal, such as Iran’s missile program, are red lines for the Iranians.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear he would not agree to any expansion of the JCPOA to cover the malign activities left out of the agreement. “The missiles program and regional issues have nothing to do with the nuclear issue,” Rouhani said.

Some Iranians don’t trust the U.S. now to stick to any new agreement. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also has a strong disincentive not to offer any compromises because he is running for reelection in June 2021 and hardliners would expect him to deliver serious U.S. concessions to win their support.

According to Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been too many breaches to return to the original agreement. “I cannot imagine that they are going simply to say, ‘We are back to square one’ because square one is no longer there,” he said.

Sources: “Iran will not renegotiate nuclear deal if Biden wins US presidency, Zarif says,” Middle East Eye, (September 21, 2020);
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “No Matter Who Is U.S. President, Iran Will Drive a Harder Bargain Than Before,” Foreign Affairs, (October 20, 2020);
Steven Erlanger, “Biden Wants to Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal, but It Won’t Be Easy,” New York Times, ((November 17, 2020);
“Netanyahu urges no return to Iran nuclear deal,” Reuters, (November 22, 2020);
“U.S., Europe should pay Iran $200 billion in compensation over JCPOA failure: senior MP,” Tehran Times, (November 22, 2020);
“Supreme leader dismisses talks as Iran looks to post-Trump future,” Reuters, (November 24, 2020);
“Gulf states concerned over possible Biden overtures to Iran, Muslim Brotherhood,” Israel Hayom, (November 27, 2020);
Thomas L. Friedman, “Biden Made Sure ‘Trump Is Not Going to Be President for Four More Years,’” New York Times, (December 2, 2020);
Christiane Hoffmann and Martin Knobbe, “We Have Waited a Long Time for This,” Spiegel International, (December 4, 2020);
“Saudi FM: Biden must consult Gulf states on rejoining Iran nuclear deal,” Times of Israel, (December 5, 2020);
Ali Arouzi and Saphora Smith, “Iran’s ballistic missile program is non-negotiable, President Hassan Rouhani says,” NBC News, (December 14, 2020);
Francois Murphy, “New agreement needed to revive Iran nuclear deal under Biden, IAEA chief,” Reuters, (December 17, 2020).