Pragmatist Biden will be dealing with ideologues in Iran

Despite overtures, the regime will do what suits its ideology. Inherent in that is its expansionist agenda

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks about the economy and the final U.S. jobs report of 2020 at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Powered by automated translation

US President-elect Joe Biden has decided to defuse tensions with Iran and climb down from his predecessor Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime. He has done so, believing that appeasing Tehran would be impossible without – at the very beginning – separating its nuclear weapons programme from the other thorny issues, including its ballistic missiles project and its expansionist agenda across the Middle East.

Speaking to The New York Times, Mr Biden made clear the features of his Iran policy, which would essentially be based on a commitment to returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement – signed under the Obama administration and later rejected by the Trump administration – as a "starting point" for negotiations. Curiously, that is also the demand of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif. The view of the Biden camp is that once the two sides automatically return to the nuclear agreement, they can talk about the other issues.

“There’s a lot of talk about precision missiles and a whole range of other things that are destabilising the region,” Mr Biden said, “[but] the best way to getting some stability in the region [is to deal] with the nuclear programme.” He added that if Tehran failed to co-operate on the other issues, his administration could consider resorting to a snapback of sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Vice President Joe Biden at his side as he delivers a statement about the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six major world powers during an early morning address to the nation from the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 14, 2015.    REUTERS/Andrew Harnik/Pool//File Photo
Then US president Barack Obama and his vice president Joe Biden crafted Middle East policy that proved to be flawed. Reuters

The Biden team has previously talked about expanding the circle of participants in the nuclear talks to include major Arab countries as well (the 2015 nuclear deal only involved the US, China, Russia, Britain, Germany and France). If this were indeed to happen, it would be a significant development – so long as the incoming administration doesn’t settle for some kind of token Arab participation.

Mr Biden's strategy may have some short-term benefits. Iran's leaders, for instance, appear to have postponed plans to retaliate against the assassination of one of their top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, late last month in Tehran. They have instructed Iranian proxies across the region to adopt a policy of strategic patience. Nobody has claimed the killing of Fakhrizadeh, although the regime has alleged Israel's involvement, with, perhaps, the blessing of the Trump administration. In any case, Tehran will probably wait for the incoming administration to lift sanctions against it, in exchange for returning to the 2015 deal, thereby being able to fund their expansionist projects with the cash now available to them.

Mr Biden clearly knows Iran’s irresponsible actions, for he has himself characterised its influence in the region as “malign”. But whether his gradualist approach is an outcome of domestic politics or not, the problem with that is it greatly undermines Mr Trump’s maximalist strategy that has set the regime back like never before in its history.

epa07917476 A handout photo made available by the supreme leader office shows Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) visiting the Imam Hossein military academy accompanied by Iranian revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) chief Hossein Salami (C-R) and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military commander General Mohammad Bagheri (C-L) in Tehran, Iran, 13 October 2019. According to media reports, Khamenei pledged to continue defending his country against US.  EPA/LEADER OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, centre, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. EPA

Apart from rolling back some of the gains made by the current administration and reducing the leverage America currently has over Iran, the Biden team must also remember that it will be dealing with a regime that is ideologically driven like few others around the world.

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that there is little possibility of a “grand bargain” between the US and Iran. This is not due to a lack of American desire to push for it, but because hostility towards the US increases the Iranian regime’s credibility in the eyes of its supporters. “Continued conflict with the United States is far less of an existential threat to Iran than a rapprochement,” Mr Sadjadpour pointed out.

Tom Fletcher, who currently serves as the principal of Hertford College at Oxford University, also ruled out the possibility of a grand bargain – although he said that could actually work in America’s favour. “It’s better that we pick out one [issue] that we might potentially be able to get done and then hopefully create the climate for the rest,” he said, essentially echoing Mr Biden’s strategy.

However, Mr Fletcher did agree that delaying talks on the other sticking points would be counter-productive “partly because America’s regional allies will demand that they make much faster progress on those other issues”.

Ultimately, though, the final say may not rest with a Biden administration but with the Iranian regime, especially its hardline faction led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In truth, the instincts of Iran’s leaders will be to not deviate from the dominant ideology of the regime since its establishment more than four decades ago.

And if the Biden team hopes it can help reform the regime, it will be disappointed. The reason is simple: Iran is a country that has essentially been hijacked by a group of expansionist-minded ideologues who are supported by, as Mr Sadjadpour described them, “radicals willing to go out and fight and kill for the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National