Transition talks in Washington have begun in earnest between the teams representing US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. But a battle may be brewing over the future of US-Iran relations and the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal. China remains a US foreign policy priority over the long term, but the focus now is how to solve a problem like Iran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and the major global powers five years ago with the purpose of stopping Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. But with Mr Trump pulling the US out of the deal in 2018, there is speculation that Mr Biden will walk America back into it. At the heart of Mr Trump’s decision to walk out was Iran’s expansionist activities across the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Just this week, the Syrian army alleged that Israel, a US ally, launched strikes in certain areas within its borders that had significant Iranian military presence. These so-called "dagger strikes", Syrian reports suggested, were launched with US understanding and assistance. Then on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Israel of masterminding the assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, saying that it was acting as a "mercenary" for the US. The killing could even be a precursor to US-backed strikes on nuclear facilities inside Iran, which will require presidential signature, but Mr Trump has yet to issue any such order. Whether or not this materialises, more strikes inside Syria – on Iranian targets and those belonging to Tehran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah – are not beyond the realm of one's imagination.
An Iranian military response hangs in the balance, as Tehran waits to see if the incoming Biden administration will lift or suspend the sanctions against it after the new president is sworn in on January 20. Some in Iran are urging the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the arm of the Iranian army that oversees its military adventures abroad, not to retaliate before Mr Biden takes over. However, there is a faction that does not feel optimistic about a major shift in the relations. This group cites the difficulties of renegotiating the JCPOA, the Biden’s team emphasis on human rights – an issue for the regime – and further sanctions the Trump administration intends to impose between now and inauguration day.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has assured some of his counterparts that his government is ready to return to compliance with the JCPOA. This means that Tehran would be willing to compromise. What that would entail is anyone’s guess. But my understanding of the regime’s thinking tells me that, while it may be willing to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missiles programmes, there is little prospect whatsoever for bringing the issue of its regional agenda to the negotiating table.
An important question is how willing Mr Biden and his team are to exclude Iran’s regional expansionist projects from the talks.
The regime seems to be betting on two factors that might work in their favour. One is the composition of the Biden team itself, which includes personnel that played a key role in the secret negotiations that led to the JCPOA; Jake Sullivan, who has been tapped for the job of national security adviser, is one such figure. It is also hoping to play hardball with the three European signatories – Britain, France and Germany – by presenting them with an ultimatum of sorts: either revive the JCPOA without making any mention of Iran’s regional activities, or the Iranians will walk away from the talks.
The first phase of the expected negotiations between Mr Biden’s team and Tehran is likely to be bilateral – although I do believe third parties are already sponsoring secret talks, with efforts under way to persuade Tehran to agree to some talking points in order to revive the JCPOA.
According to Elliott Abrams, the US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, the Trump administration has made it virtually impossible to make a swift return to the nuclear deal, mostly due to rigid sanctions that are in place. He also believes the US will slap sanctions against the governments of Iran, China and Russia if they negotiate defence contracts – less than two months after a UN arms embargo on Tehran expired. As it turns out, the process may have just begun.
The US on Saturday announced sanctions targeting Chinese and Russian companies for supporting Iran's ballistic missiles programme. More could follow, including companies in the aerospace, nuclear, aviation and navigation sectors.
Mr Abrams believes Mr Trump has given his successor an edge in future negotiations with Iran.
“We think the Biden administration has a great opportunity because there's so much leverage on Iran through the sanctions,” he said. “Working with our friends and partners in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates – we have an opportunity to produce an agreement that actually addresses the missile question [and] the regional question. If we work together, there is a real opportunity. If we discard the leverage we have, it would really be tragic and foolish.”
Mr Abrams also hopes that Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, and Mr Sullivan will learn from their mistakes, when they pushed an imperfect nuclear deal while working for the Obama administration. “I know Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, they're terrific people. The question is whether they realise that it is not 2015, it will be 2021. They have to build on what we have learned since then.”
Overseeing Iran’s regional activities, however, is a very real possibility ahead of negotiations. Barring France, none of the other signatories have emphasised this issue. This means that the onus will be on the major Arab countries to put pressure on these signatories through appropriate channels in the coming days and weeks.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National