What will a Biden presidency mean for Iran?

US President-elect Biden says his administration will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal 'as a starting point for follow-up negotiations' [File: Reuters]

Democratic nominee’s victory in US elections boosts hopes of revitalising Iran nuclear deal – but undoing the Trump years will not be easy.

Tehran, Iran – The effects from Joe Biden’s election as the next president of the United States are certainly to reverberate across the world – but perhaps nowhere more than in Iran.

Many Iranians’ hopes for a better future following the signing of a nuclear accord between Iran and world powers in 2015 were quashed some three years later, when President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the landmark deal.

Trump’s hawkish administration proceeded to impose waves of unforgiving economic sanctions that blacklisted the entire Iranian financial sector as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that led, among other things, to soaring inflation and shortages of medicine.

Biden has promised to “change course” – but the path forward remains unclear and complicated.

For one, the president-elect, who was vice president when the nuclear deal that is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was struck, has said the US will rejoin the accord “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” if Iran returns to compliance with it.

Iran, on the other hand, has said the US must first “return to law and international commitments” before any further steps can be taken.

With European efforts failing to secure Iran the economic benefits it was promised under the deal, the Iranian government began to gradually scale back a number of its JCPOA commitments exactly one year after the US reneged on the accord in May 2018.

Iran has said it will return to full compliance with the deal after the US does the same.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CBS News Iran will under no circumstances renegotiate the terms of the JCPOA.

“If we wanted to do that, we could have done it with President Trump four years ago,” he said.

‘Freeze for freeze’ agreement

Against this background, Henry Rome, senior Iran analyst at the US-based political risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, expects both Iran and the US to proceed cautiously in the early months of a Biden presidency.

“Biden will face a slew of more pressing priorities and Tehran will be cautious to appear over-eager to negotiate and give away leverage before the June presidential election,” he told Al Jazeera.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is nearing the end of his second four-year tenure, will leave office in early August. His replacement will be decided in an election set for June 18, 2021.

In February, a conservative-majority parliament was formed in Iran after only about 42 percent of voters participated in the elections, an all-time low turnout in the four-decade history of the Islamic republic.

But Rome believes the two countries could reach a “freeze-for-freeze” interim agreement in 2021, likely in the second half of the year.

He explained the agreement could entail Tehran halting or rolling back some aspects of its nuclear programme, such as advanced centrifuge development and testing.

“In exchange, the US could permit Iran access to an international line of credit and export at most approximately 500,000 barrels per day total of crude legally,” the analyst said.

Rome believes broader negotiations will likely have to wait until 2022.

Choking off Iran’s oil exports has been a main target of the Trump administration. Exports have shrunk by more than 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) due to US sanctions, but Iran still exports an unknown amount in defiance of sanctions.

Data from three firms that track tankers showed Iran’s oil exports sharply rose in September, according to Reuters news agency, but the figures indicated a wide range of between 400,000 bpd and 1.5 million bpd.

Stepped-up efforts from Europe

Following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, the European signatories to the deal had repeatedly called on the Trump administration to return to it.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom – together known as the E3 – also voiced concerns about Iran’s increased nuclear activities.

According to Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Europe will now try to set the groundwork for a Biden re-entry into the JCPOA as soon as possible.

“I think what we’re likely to see is a stepped-up diplomatic effort from the E3 governments and the EU towards Tehran on seeing what kind of process and conditions are acceptable for the US to re-enter the deal, and indeed for Iran to come back to full compliance with the JCPOA’s nuclear commitments,” she told Al Jazeera.

Geranmayeh believes a Biden administration should strive to enter a formal framework with Iran before the upcoming presidential polls, after which making major diplomatic headways could prove more difficult.

“If there’s enough political will on all sides, it is technically feasible for Iran to roll back its nuclear activities to JCPOA limits by June,” she said.

‘Comprehensive sanctions structure in place’

On the US side, though, things might be more complicated.

Over the past year, the Trump administration has taken a series of actions that would make it more difficult for a potential Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal and roll back sanctions.

This has mainly been done through hitting Iranian individuals and entities, some of whom were already sanctioned, with non-nuclear designations, including those related to “terrorism” and human rights.

The latest example came on October 26 when the US Treasury imposed new sanctions on the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company “for their financial support” for the Quds Force, the overseas paramilitary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh was also blacklisted.

On the same day, US Special Representative for Iran Elliott Abrams told The National a potential Biden administration could not lift all US sanctions on Iran, even if it wanted to.

“The US now has a comprehensive sanctions structure in place that will stay for a while,” he said.

The ECFR’s Geranmayeh says the nuclear-related sanctions can and should be lifted to revitalise the JCPOA, but a Biden administration may run into problems in lifting other designations in Congress due to “political constraints” posed by Republicans who remain in control of the Senate.

She also said European governments party to the JCPOA should look to realistically address Iran’s demand for compensation through consulting with it on an economic package that could build more confidence around the nuclear deal.

Iranian FM Zarif says Iran will under no circumstances renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal [File: Reuters]

‘Cautious pragmatist’

Mohsen Shariatinia, an assistant professor of international relations at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, also believes a US return to the nuclear deal will not be simple or quick.

He said what has transpired between the two countries in the past four years – a period of escalating tensions that reached fever pitch at the start of the year when a US drone raid killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani – and the upcoming Iranian presidential election will only serve to complicate the issue.

“The option for the Rouhani government will likely be to accelerate the process of the US return to the nuclear deal so sanctions pressure will be eased and the JCPOA could remain as the most important achievement of the government,” he told Al Jazeera.

Shariatinia said the nuclear deal and its treatment by the US have taught politicians in Iran valuable lessons of instability and unpredictability in international relations.

“I predict the next Iranian president, no matter the political affiliation, will be a cautious pragmatist who will neither be antagonistic nor will have a romantic view of international politics,” he said.

In a CNN op-ed in mid-September, Biden signalled his administration would also focus on Iran’s regional activities and missile programme.

Geranmayeh said she does not expect Iran, especially under Rouhani, to open up to discussion on those issues.

She said Iran and the US may establish a “calm for calm” dynamic where they accommodate one another’s interests in key areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

“But it is hard to imagine direct US-Iran talks on a grand bargain over regional issues. These need to be done in a multilateral forum and on a case-by-case basis,” she said.