The world is almost unanimously convinced that there is no path left for US President Donald Trump to secure a second term in the White House following the presidential election earlier this month. But many of the world’s leaders may be feeling unsettled by his refusal to concede defeat to Joe Biden, and by the tactics he may or may not use to remain in power beyond January 20, when his first term comes to an end. Some leaders may be assessing the cost of their position vis-a-vis the Trump administration, while others are probably figuring out how Mr Trump will shackle Mr Biden’s hands during this period of political transition in Washington.
One country whose leadership will be anxiously waiting and watching is Iran.
Lame duck period as this may be, the Trump administration might consider slapping more sanctions on the regime in Tehran, as well as on its allies and proxies elsewhere in the Middle East. The scope of these sanctions may be widened to target the regime’s ballistic missile programme, support for terrorism around the world and domestic repression. The calculus behind this likely decision could be that, while the incoming Biden administration may be able to roll back sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme, it will be hard-pressed to limit others, especially if they are backed by the US Congress. These punitive measures would make it very difficult for Mr Biden to revive American-Iranian relations that had improved during the presidency of Barack Obama and vice presidency of Mr Biden, and culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Such speculation comes at a time when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a seven-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East. Mr Pompeo's primary objective may be to assess the readiness of the countries he is visiting for if and when sanctions are announced against Iran. Could the Trump administration be contemplating military strikes on Iranian targets as well? While this seems highly unlikely, given that there is so little time left between now and January 20, don’t rule out the possibility.
At the same time, it is not a foregone conclusion that a Biden administration will be all that eager to reactivate the nuclear deal, which Mr Trump walked out of in 2018. This is in part because, despite providing indications that the Biden team might be willing to reach out to the Iranian regime, it is not clear with whom exactly it will get in touch with – the civilian camp led by President Hassan Rouhani, or the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Interestingly, the Biden team has spoken about the need for Iranian “compliance” in the context of the nuclear deal as a precursor to talks. In September, Tony Blinken, the former deputy secretary of state and an adviser to Mr Biden, said: “If Joe Biden is president, if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement, we would do the same. But then we would use that as a platform, working with our allies and partners to try to strengthen and lengthen it.”
Could the words “allies and partners” be instructive? Where does that leave Russia and China, who are no allies or partners of the US but, nonetheless, joint signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal?
Let's talk about the allies first. A Biden presidency will no doubt please the European Union. The President-elect will work towards reducing tensions in transatlantic relations and within Nato – tensions that existed due to Mr Trump’s lack of interest in sustaining age-old alliances that have underpinned the global security architecture for decades. There is also a common interest in the West to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran to cover its ballistic missile programme and regional expansionist agenda as well. In other words, the emphasis could be on securing a new deal, rather than reviving the original one.
The good news for the outgoing and incoming administrations is that this would receive bipartisan support in the US. And yet, unsure of Mr Biden’s actions, the Trump team seems determined to double down on Tehran.
But what about the Russians? From my conversation with Fyodor Lukyanov, research director at the Valdai Discussion Club and Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, it seems to me that Moscow is concerned about deliberately being excluded from any future US-Iran negotiations. Mr Lukyanov, who does not see a return to the 2015 deal, said: “It would be very interesting to see whether Russia will be invited to participate [in future discussions] or not, because I don’t believe Biden’s administration will be very keen to do it.”
This, according to Mr Lukyanov, could have an impact on Russia-Iran relations, although he added that “when there are interests which coincide, then Russia and Iran find ways how to do it”. Both countries have an interest in securing the future of the Syrian regime led by Bashar Al Assad. And both countries will be right to worry about a continuation of the Caesar Act under a Biden administration, which currently sanctions the Syrian government as well as its allies and partners at various levels.
While Mr Biden is likely to be tougher on Russia than Mr Trump was, on China, a Biden presidency will certainly not divorce itself from the Trump doctrine. The latter is especially of consequence, not just because of blossoming China-Iran relations but Beijing's rising power on the world stage.
It seems that Mr Biden will broadly pursue the following plan with Beijing: the appointment of a special envoy to China in order to ensure that dialogue is not dependent exclusively on high-level summit meetings; political and military de-escalation of tensions; a gradual resumption of trade negotiations; and a greater focus on China’s internal matters, including the future of its territories such as Hong Kong.
In short, in some regards there won't be a radical departure in US policy from one president to the other.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National