Iran moderates hail Biden win, but any nuclear talks expected to be fraught

·4-min read

Six months before the Iranian presidential election, Joe Biden’s victory in the US could influence the vote in Iran, where hopes to resume negotiations on the nuclear deal have prompted enthusiasm from moderates and even some hardliners. However, analysts expect that any future talks would be vexed.

Iranians eagerly awaited the presidential results on November 3. After four years of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policies, Biden’s victory could pave the way for more emollient approach on both sides. In theory, that would put the lifting of US sanctions on the cards.

Biden has promised a “credible path back to diplomacy” with Tehran once he enters the White House in January. He said he wanted to return to the 2015 deal signed by his then boss, Barack Obama, but as a “starting point for follow-on negotiations” and on the condition that Iran follows its strictures closely.

In Iran, many believe that Biden’s win will have consequences for the future of their country, which will elect a new president in May as incumbent Hassan Rouhani reaches his term limit. Analysts conjecture that a less hawkish US president could benefit the moderate camp in Iranian politics, which favours diplomatic engagement with Washington.

“If the US and Iran start to negotiate, Iranian voters will see the possibility of a deal and that could strengthen the moderates,” said Thierry Coville, an Iran specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) in Paris.

But the “time frame is tight”, Coville cautioned. “The Iranian election takes place in May, just four months after Biden takes office.”

Since Washington reimposed sanctions after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, Iran has suffered a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country is one of the hardest hit by the virus outbreak, with an official death toll of 37,000, which analysts believe to be significantly higher.

The moderate camp lost credibility with many voters when it promised a bright future facilitated by an end to US sanctions, only for Trump to withdraw from the deal.

Risk of 'things going sideways'

Rouhani is considered a centrist, but closer to the reformist wing in light of his signing the Iran deal. He said Biden’s victory was a chance for the US to “compensate for its mistakes”.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter: “The world is watching whether the new leaders will abandon disastrous lawless bullying of outgoing regime – and accept multilateralism, cooperation and respect for law.”

Coville estimated that the Biden administration would ease some of the embargo meaures. “When Biden takes the presidency, many people from the Obama team, including former State Department officials who negotiated the 2015 deal, are likely to return to the fold,” he said.

“One possible scenario I see as a first step would be for the US to allow the purchase of Iranian oil and the sale of anti-coronavirus drugs to the country – and Iranian officials would be unlikely to refuse such offers,” he continued.

However, putting the nuclear deal back together will be tough. The US has long resented Iran’s interference in other Middle Eastern countries, notably its backing of militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Iran, meanwhile, will not easily forgive the US for killing Qassem Suleimani – the mastermind who headed the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard’s special ops unit.

Tehran has gotten back to work on its nuclear programme since Trump reneged on the agreement: Currently its uranium stockpiles are almost eight times the limit in the deal. At the same time, the UN embargo on the sale of conventional weaponry to Iran has expired.

On a domestic level, Biden would have to justify easing sanctions to the hawkish faction within his own party – not to mention a Senate likely to remain under Republican control.

The US may seek to take advantage of Iran’s weakened economic conditions to try to recreate the nuclear deal.

But any “follow-on negotiations” Biden might attempt – likely to include talks about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and interference in other Middle Eastern states through support for armed groups – are expected to be fraught.

“As soon as you start opening anything up [. . .] you complicate it and by definition then you’re in a longer negotiation and you run the risk during that period of seeing things go sideways,” Robert Malley, former Middle East director at the Obama White House, now head of the International Crisis Group, told the Financial Times.

This article has been translated from the original in French.