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Sunday, May 23, 2021, 06:48 (GMT+7)
Future path of US-Iranian relations

There have not been any considerable changes in US-Iranian relations since US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reintroduction of sanctions on this country. It is doubtful whether President Joe Biden will continue to implement his predecessor’s policies or opt for new approach to Iran.

US policy of “maximum pressure” weakens Iran’s economy

In May 2018, President Donald Trump announced to withdraw US from the JCPOA signed with Iran for the reason that this deal was not only strong enough to completely neutralise Iran’s nuclear program and address other security challenges posed by Iran, but also enabled this country to expand its influence in some countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Trump once criticised Iran for using money from oil sales to fund terrorist groups in the region, an unacceptable issue from US perspective on national security.

Right after withdrawing from the JCPOA, US reimposed and added new sanctions with the aim to put “maximum pressure” and crush Iran’s economy, compelling Iran to negotiate a replacement that satisfies US requirements. In addition, US thoroughly implemented sanctions in the fields of energy, finance, banking, weapon production, automobile technology, precious metals, gemstones, and industry to choke off Iran’s funds for terrorist organisations and cut this country off the global financial system. Many countries chose to reduce interactions with Iran for fear that they would become targets of US sanctions. These moves have done serious damage to Iran’s economy. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemics and low oil price present numerous challenges to Iran’s economy. In 2020, crude oil production, Iran’s main source of income, was at the lowest point in the past 40 years, falling below 2 million barrels a day. Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 6.8% while its inflation rate rose sharply to 46% in 2020. Approximately 55% of the population lived below poverty line, 5 times higher than the same period in 2018 prior to US’s reintroduction of sanctions.

Dilemma of Joe Biden’s administration

Shortly after US official withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal, Joe Biden announced that this move would be a mistake, paving the way for Iran to restarting its nuclear program, and negotiation for a better nuclear agreement was only an “illusion.” Throughout his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden repeatedly promised to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran would comply fully with the agreement. Nevertheless, Joe Biden’s administration is coping with some pressure both at home and abroad.

First, after US departure from the JCPOA, Iran started enriching uranium to a purity of up to 4.5%, higher than the 3.67% allowed. Recently, this country has also announced that it would enrich uranium up to a purity of 20%. Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believe that the 20 percent level of purity is extremely dangerous because this will facilitate Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. According to some experts, Iran has about 20 kg of uranium with an enrichment level of 20% and up to 3,000 kg uranium enriched at lower levels. IAEA also informs that Iran is producing uranium metal, a vital material that can be used to form the core of nuclear weapons. In early February 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at current rate Iran would be months away from being able to produce enough material for nuclear weapons, but the timeframe could be shortened if sanctions were lifted. Recently, Tehran has decided to restrict international inspectors’ access to its nuclear facilities and insists on negotiation if Washington lifts part of the sanctions. Meanwhile, up till now Washington only accepts to remove sanctions after Tehran has ceased to enrich uranium and rolled back the 3.67 percent level. The US agreed to reengage in negotiations with Iran and the P5+1 at a virtual dialogue with the United Kingdom, France, and Germany held last February. However, Iran refused this request and reaffirmed its call for US removal of sanctions prior to negotiations.

Second, President Joe Biden’s administration is having difficulty with reaching a bipartisan compromise on Iranian nuclear issue. Some radical Democratic congressmen are establishing an alliance to compel President Joe Biden to early rejoin JCPOA. In addition, many high-ranking foreign policy officials, including Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, CIA Director William Burns, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, have participated in JCPOA negotiations under President Barack Obama’s term.

In contrast, most of Republican congressmen and even some key members of the Democratic Party such as Senators Charles Schummer, Bob Mendenev, and Joe Manchin, reject the JCPOA. They claim that this deal has many “flaws” which may help Iran to develop nuclear weapons right after its expiry. It also fails to curtail Iran’s missile programme. The removal of sanctions will create favourable conditions for Iran to provide funding for sources of instability in the region. In early March 2021, 43 bipartisan senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden to propose working with some countries to resolve many issues pertaining to Iran, not just the nuclear programme.

Third, US allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, strongly oppose US return to JCPOA and request a tougher deal with the participation of some regional countries to address security threats posed by Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu denounces the JCPOA for fear that the deal might help Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium in a shorter period of time. He used to lobby former President Donald Trump for abandoning the JCPOA and is urging President Joe Biden and US Congress to renounce the deal and keep the sanctions on Iran in place. Leaders of some Gulf states claim that this deal enables Iran to strengthen its ambitions for regional hegemony and fails to stop Iran’s support for proxy groups to cause conflicts in the Middle East.

Approach of President Joe Biden’s administration

To achieve breakthroughs in US-Iran relations is a thorny problem because the two sides seriously lack trust and regard first concessions as willingness to enter into negotiations. Washington’s return to the JCPOA with provisions and measures agreed in 2015 is also not feasible since Tehran has exceeded some limits of the 2015 agreement. Additionally, US’s domestic pressure and opposition of its allies in the region, particularly Israel, are posing formidable obstacles to President Joe Biden’s administration. Besides, the US must take account of major powers’ influence, most notably Russia and China. After US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Russia has successfully taken advantage of the Iranian “card” to expand its influence in the region. Russia is considered a peacemaker and intermediary between Iran and the Arab bloc. Currently, Russia has no intention of barring US from rejoining the JCPOA, but it clearly reaps benefits from US’s withdrawal. Apart from Russia, China is taking opportunities to extend its influence in the Middle East. China and Iran have just signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement. Accordingly, Iran will be brought into China’s Belt and Road Initiative through investments worth USD400 billion in infrastructure, industry, information technology, finance, banking, and petrochemistry. China will get access to a steady supply of cheap oil in return. Cooperation with China will help Iran to find a new way to reduce pressure from US’s sanctions. This is also an opportunity for the two countries to deepen cooperation in military affairs, intelligence, and counterterrorism. Although there remain many controversies in Iranian circles about China’s rising economic and military influence, US’s sanctions leave few choices for Iran except for growing closer to China and Russia.

Consequently, in the short run, President Joe Biden’s administration is highly likely to keep the policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions in order to weaken Iran. The US will also strengthen cooperation with European allies and other parties concerned, including Russia and China, to impose pressure on Iranian nuclear issue. US’ return to the JCPOA cannot be compared to its return to the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Paris Climate Agreement. Therefore, Washington must be extremely cautious and may call for amending the deal to meet its current requirements.

Apart from nuclear issue, response to Iran’s rising influence is also US’s top priority when Iran is playing an important role in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Consequently, before the end of his term, President Donald Trump moved Israel into Central Command’s area of responsibility. This Command oversees the Middle East. Israel used to be in the sphere of European Command for decades. In addition to this event, normalisation of relations between Israel and Bahrain, UAE, Sudan, and Maroc, has paved the way for Israel to become deeply involved with security cooperation mechanisms in the region and promote collaboration with Arab states to deal with security threats posed by Iran. Washington also vows to retaliate if US military is attacked. Nevertheless, it will avoid actions that may escalate situation as what was seen in the assassination of General Soleimani in January 2020. Moreover, democracy and human rights are important issues in US-Iran relations. This was demonstrated in Jake Sullivan’s statement about the killing of Ruhllah Zam in December 2020.

In conclusion, Washington’s return to the nuclear deal as pledged is almost impossible. Instead, US will exploit influence of its allies and partners to keep “maximum pressure” on Iran. US and Iran reconvened indirect talks on 6 April 2021 in Vienna. The two sides established two working groups and discussed following steps concerning US’s removal of sanctions on Iran and Iran’s return and compliance with provisions and measures set out in the JCPOA. The talks are described as constructive and may help to reduce tension between US and Iran. The two countries are expected to restart dialogue in the time to come but will find it difficult to reach a substantive deal in the short run.


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