What Will President Joe Biden Mean for Iran?

What Will President Joe Biden Mean for Iran?
Photo by Alireza Heydarifard on Unsplash

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump was hostile towards the Iranian regime. He withdrew the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement and he embarked on a policy of “Maximum Pressure Campaign,” the most stringent sanctions regime ever imposed on a country in the history of sanctions statecraft to change Iran’s behaviour and to force it to renegotiate a “better deal.”

However, this policy has failed to achieve any goal. The Iranian regime has not only refused to renegotiate a new deal, but it has resumed its nuclear-related activities and expanded its ballistic missile program as well. With Trump leaving the White House, now the question is would President Joe Biden and the Iranian regime get along?

To begin with, the election of Joe Biden has created an opportunity for new negotiations. Biden has left no room for speculation in his Foreign Affairs article, saying, if “Tehran returns to strict compliance with the deal,” the US “would rejoin the agreement.”

Additionally, according to the western analysts, Iran’s economy is in its worst condition due to sanctions and the Coronavirus pandemic. According to observers, this situation has left the Iranian regime with no option but to break the standoff in its relations with the United States.

However, a careful analysis of debates in Tehran and Washington indicates that Iran and the United States may fail to find a diplomatic solution quickly, despite the economic hardship that Iran is facing at home.

First off, the “renegotiation” of the deal is not an option in Tehran because re-opening talks with the United States over the nuclear agreement will require Iran to lose more, not only in the nuclear program but in its missile program as well. Unlike the nuclear program, the ballistic missile arsenal plays a crucial role in Iran’s sense of defence and deterrence; thus, its total abandonment of the missile program is impossible. 

For this reason, the regime may want the United States’ return to the deal without precondition and “renegotiations” expectation. As Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif noted, “If we wanted to [renegotiate], we would have done it four years ago with President Trump. Under no circumstances will Tehran consider renegotiating the JCPOA.”

A careful analysis of Tehran and Washington’s debates indicates that Iran and the United States may fail to find a diplomatic solution quickly, despite the economic hardship that Iran is facing at home.

Second, Iranian hardliners are in favour of preserving the status quo than with peace-making with Washington. Thus, re-engagement with the United States would be a blow to Ayatollah Khamenei and his hardline followers and their political and ideological stance vis-à-vis the United States. They regard renegotiation of the JCPOA as the first step in their pragmatic rivals’ plans to normalize Iran’s relations, and they would resist such a gambit.

Ayatollah Khamenei believes the only solution to the country’s problem is “resistance”. His website published a poster of a Trojan horse captioned negotiations with the United States that will open the country’s gates to the US influence. Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of Khamenei, reflected Khamenei’s viewpoint and noted that Iran must continue defiance despite sanctions because the regime’s success will depend mainly on the “resistance, self-reliance and economic reform at home.” After all, the hardline faction in Tehran views Trump’s defeat as evidence of the resistance policy’s success, and they think Biden should take lessons from it. 

Third, the conservative faction may even try to sabotage any attempt to re-negotiations with the US due to their struggle for power with their political rival, the pragmatic faction. They are concerned that easing US pressure on Iran could boost pragmatists in the upcoming presidential election. However, the ongoing economic pressure will keep most Iranian people away from the ballot box, and minimal participation in the elections will set up the conservative camp for big gains. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, when the country saw the lowest turnout since the 1979 revolution, the conservative camp emerged victorious with winning 223 seats in the 290-strong parliament. Further, for the first time since 1979, a former member of the IRGC’s top brass is the speaker of parliament.

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While Iranians insist that there will be no renegotiations over the nuclear agreement, they also want the US Senate to ratify the current deal as a treaty to make it difficult for the next administrations to end it unilaterally. 

The Iranians’ notion is that abrogating a treaty with the broader support of the US Republicans might carry higher political costs while keeping the JCPOA as an executive accord conducted unilaterally without tacit congressional cooperation be hollow. As Khamenei once noted, “we do not trust the Americans and their statements again. We regard the US government as an untrustworthy government. It is an arrogant, unreasonable, and mischievous government.”

But with a Republican-controlled senate who insists on a new deal which addresses Iran’s ballistic missiles program as well, Joe Biden will probably have serious difficulties in reviving the nuclear accord and fighting for sanction relief on Iran. Republicans aside, even not all Democrats agree that Biden should return to the deal without addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional behaviour. For instance, Biden informal advisers noted that “it makes no sense to cede leverage prematurely and then expect to persuade [Iranians] to change their policies.”

But without sanction relief or lack of senate ratification, or by raising the ballistic missiles issue,  negotiations with Iran become extremely difficult. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


For Israel, which the Islamic Republic designated as a theological enemy as well as a realpolitik adversary, a nuclear Iran, is a high priority strategic concern. President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of crushing economic sanctions on Iran were cheered by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some other officials due to the belief that the deal is not strong enough to prevent Iran’s weaponization. Netanyahu will probably reinforce its efforts to force Biden to avoid reentering the JCPOA and to keep the pressure on Iran until the regime agrees to renegotiate a “better deal” to address Israeli security concerns.

The Israelis contend that the US returning to the JCPOA would force Jerusalem to act unilaterally against Tehran, kicking off a military confrontation between Israel and Iran. One Israeli official told Jerusalem Post that if Biden returns to the Iran deal, “there will, in the end, be a violent confrontation between Israel and Iran.”

Complicating matters, Israel once again will probably re-emerge as the key opponent of the nuclear agreement. It may try to sabotage Biden-Iran engagement and their attempt to return to the nuclear accord. 

This will make it hard for Biden to reenter the deal unilaterally, without consulting Israel first. After all, it is true that Biden’s foreign policy toward Israel would likely not be as friendly as Trump’s, but support for Israel in Washington is strong and bipartisan. Joe Biden himself is generally pro-Israel, although he has criticized Netanyahu on some issues. Daniel Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under Obama, also reassured Israelis that “Ensuring Iran does not get nuclear weapons and ensuring Israel’s security remains a [Biden’s] priority.”

The bottom line is that the discourse over renegotiating the nuclear accord is complicated because of the large number of players.  In Iran, despite economic hardship, the hardline faction is not interested in talks because the cost of renegotiations outweighs the benefits.

There is also a clear division between those favouring Biden’s return to the deal if Iran returns to strict compliance with the deal. The in the United States, Republicans will likely oppose the move without Biden’s forcing Iran to give up more in nuclear and ballistic missile fields. 

Complicating matters, Israel once again will probably re-emerge as the key opponent of the nuclear agreement. It may try to sabotage Biden-Iran engagement and their attempt to return to the nuclear accord. 

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Farhad Rezaei
Farhad Rezaei

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