Could Biden save the nuclear deal with Iran?

Could Biden bring the US back into the Iran nuclear deal?
7 min read
Analysis: Joe Biden has vowed that the US could rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if he wins the 2020 election. But time might be running out.
The JCPOA is a partisan issue in Washington. [Getty]

With 12 days left until the US presidential election of 2020, both candidates are talking about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly called the Iranian nuclear deal. 

President Donald Trump, who for years has referred to the JCPOA as the "worst deal ever", constantly takes credit for pulling the US out of the accord in May 2018.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly criticised Trump for that decision, which he says has put the Islamic Republic "closer to a weapon now than we were when we left office in 2017."  

The democratic presidential hopeful vows to "offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy" and that "if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would re-join the agreement". 

Yet if Biden wins, how easy will it be for him to bring Washington back into the JCPOA? It might not be as simple as many pundits assume. When several factors are brought into discussion, it becomes clear that the picture is somewhat complicated. 

Biden would have to contend with the consequences of the Trump administration's Iran policies, which will make diplomacy between Iran and any post-Trump administration difficult. It seems that the White House wants to hinder any US return to the JCPOA regardless of the outcome of next month's election. 

The Trump administration has embarked on a scorched earth policy to destroy the JCPOA as much possible

In 2020 alone, such actions have included the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the re-imposition of UN sanctions on Tehran despite 13 of the 15 UN Security Council members opposing the move, and the tightening of sanctions on Iran while the country has been coping with Covid-19, which hit Iran harder than any other Middle Eastern country.  

"The Trump administration has embarked on a scorched earth policy to destroy the JCPOA as much possible," Sina Azodi of the Atlantic Council and Gulf State Analytics told The New Arab. "Constantly adding financial institutions and different sectors of the Iranian economy to the sanctions list would make it difficult for Biden to fully implement the JCPOA, as it would require a strong political capital in DC to remove those."

Read more: What a Biden presidency could mean for
the Middle East

Questions about the tactics and timing for a US return to the accord must be considered too. Would the US return to the JCPOA immediately, or would the Biden administration ease Trump's pressure more gradually in order to try to draw more concessions from Iran prior to bringing Washington back into the accord?

For now, that's an open question. Also up for debate is the window of time officials in a Biden administration would have to convince the Iranians that they are sincere when stating their intentions to return Washington to the JCPOA, before any potential goodwill is lost. 

Then the Iranian side has to be factored into account. Even if there was a consensus in the Biden administration about the need to bring the US back to the accord as quickly as possible, how Tehran would respond is unclear.

Because of the economic and human cost that Iran has paid for these sanctions, we can expect officials in Tehran to continue calling for compensation from the US as a precondition to Iran returning to full compliance with the accord, which Tehran maintained until one year after the US pulled out from the JCPOA. The Iranian demands and subsequent negotiations could prove difficult for a Biden administration to take on.

If Biden enters the Oval Office in January 2021, he would only be in the White House for a few months with the Rouhani administration still in power

Domestic politics in the Islamic Republic cannot be ignored. If Biden enters the Oval Office in January 2021, he would only be in the White House for a few months with the Rouhani administration still in power. The Iranian president cannot run for another term and the chances are high that an Iranian hardliner, who is far less amenable to engagement with Washington, will win the presidency in the June 2021 elections. 

Moreover, Iran's political system has become increasingly militarised, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) power expanding. Currently, this strong military, political and economic force is essentially in total operational control of the Iranian state. This matters to the JCPOA's future for at least two major reasons.

First, greater IRGC control in Iran will inevitably lead to more of Tehran's support for pro-Iranian militant groups around the region, which will make it harder for the Biden administration to engage the Islamic Republic diplomatically with so many in Washington wanting to link the JCPOA (or some supposed future deal) to such non-nuclear issues. Second, hardline IRGC elements have much to gain from US-Iran brinkmanship continuing. 

Read more: US pressure pushes Iran into China and Russia's arms

Additionally, even if the Islamic Republic would trust a Biden administration to bring the US back to the JCPOA and abide by the deal, Iran has no way of knowing the outcome of America's elections in 2024, or 2028. Considering how a hawkish Republican could win a future race, Tehran would always wonder how much longer Iran must wait before the US pulls out of the accord again. This is to say that Iran's government may require a guarantee about the long-term benefits of returning to full compliance with the accord.  

"Iran would demand some sort of commitment or strengthening the enforcement mechanism of JCPOA so that in the future the US cannot simply abrogate the agreement," maintains Azodi. "Remember that JCPOA was signed under the thinking that Iran would violate the deal. But in practice it was the US that ditched the agreement because Trump simply didn't like it."

Tehran might say that the JCPOA must be formalised into a treaty. But the US Constitution requires "advice and consent" from the Senate before America can enter treaties. Given the extent to which the JCPOA is a mostly partisan issue in Washington, one could bet that a Republican-controlled Senate would never sign on to such a treaty. There are also powerful anti-Iran/anti-JCPOA lobbying groups, which can heavily influence elected officials. 

Sharing a hatred for the JCPOA and desiring a continuation of dangerous US-Iran brinkmanship, right-wing extremists in Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv will work to undermine any potential for a new US-Iran detente

Organisations such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would put their efforts into derailing any potential for a Biden administration to make a diplomatic outreach to Iran, let alone return Washington to the nuclear accord. That said, FDD may carry less sway in Washington if Biden wins given that the "think tank" is far less influential over Democrats than Republicans.  

Ultimately, all presidents care greatly about their legacies. Given that as VP Biden played a pivotal role in the JCPOA at many levels, including selling it to pro-Israel groups in the US, this nuclear accord is a part of Biden's legacy. He will likely work hard to bring the US back into the deal, not only as part of his legacy, but also to advance US national interests, which Biden and most democrats see the JCPOA serving, not hindering. 

Read more: Back to square one, as the JCPOA turns five

Ultimately, Trump's decision to unilaterally pull Washington out of the JCPOA will have long lasting impacts on the overall state of US-Iran relations, likely far into the post-Trump and post-Khamenei periods. Along with the US-backed coup of 1953 and support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, the campaign of "maximum pressure" which Trump imposed on the Islamic Republic will long fit into Iranian narratives about America's aggression, hypocrisy, and dishonesty.

Sharing a hatred for the JCPOA and desiring a continuation of dangerous US-Iran brinkmanship, right-wing extremists in Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv will work to undermine any potential for a new US-Iran détente in the post-Trump era - a reality that Biden, if elected, would have to face when trying to salvage the JCPOA. 

As the 46th president, Biden would have to play his political cards - at home and abroad - very carefully in order to successfully assuage Iranian concerns about the US in order to bring Washington and Tehran to a 'new understanding' and compromise on the Iranian nuclear file.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Diana Vasconcellos is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.