It must have come as a small measure of satisfaction to allies across the Atlantic and Pacific when the US President, Joseph Biden, stressed in a virtual meeting with leaders of the G7 that Washington was into the old scheme of things, meaning that it will be back on the global stage that the earlier administration of Donald Trump had walked out of. Allies were not only miffed at the fashion in which the Trump administration got out of international accords, but also in the fact there was hardly any consultation on issues of major foreign policy. Add to this the general perception of incoherence in American foreign policy.
Even during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden and his team made the point that a turnabout was going to happen in foreign relations of the United States, especially in the context of the Trump administration walking out of the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organization and the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, to mention just three. Getting back into the Paris accord or for that matter the WHO would seem to be relatively easier for Washington, but Biden and his team of policy advisors know that Iran is a potential minefield, having its share of foreign and domestic hurdles to manoeuvre.
During the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump had given every indication of his thinking on the Iranian deal, which came into force in 2015. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, it was not some sort of a “deal” between Teheran and Washington, rather it was one that involved the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, with the United Nations, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency playing crucial roles. As a part of the agreement, certain targeted sanctions against Iran were lifted in return for compliance on a nuclear energy programme that had to be endorsed by IAEA inspectors.
From the very beginning the Trump administration, with the backing of conservatives on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, were dead set against the deal. It was variously billed by the former Republican President as the “worst ever” accord that could have been signed and something against the interests of the United States. And after two certifications in 2017, Trump walked away from the agreement in 2018, much to the discomfiture of European allies who maintained that Washington could not leave on its own and that Teheran was in strict compliance of the accord. But Trump would have none of this and his stance was only apparently reinforced by hawks in Israel and elsewhere in the Arab world saying that “Iran lied”.
Biden’s promise of re-engaging the global community once again has lifted hopes on the Iranian deal, but questions remain if the 2015 arrangement can be resurrected as originally conceived or modified and made operational and with what costs. Academics even pose the question whether Biden can even resurrect the deal given the wide range of views within his own new administration — between the State Department, the National Security Council and the personal envoy appointed to oversee Iranian affairs.
The differences within the executive branch aside, Biden has to factor in congressional perceptions as well, especially in the Senate where sentiments run high on Iran and its religious clergy. Many members of Congress are still nursing a 40-year grouse against Teheran — the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the losing of a vital listening post and the hostage crisis when America was humiliated for 444 days by the holding of 52 diplomatic personnel by members of the Revolutionary Guards, only to be released on the day Ronald Regan was sworn in president in January 1981. Capitol Hill watchers have pointed out that Biden would especially have to be mindful of what Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the current Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has in mind. In 2015 the New Jersey politician was against the JCPOA and was equally critical when Trump terminated it in 2018. The Biden White House needs the support of Senator Menendez in getting through nominations in his panel.
Equally troublesome for Biden is the attitude of the leadership in Teheran on returning to the table and on what conditions. The American attitude of “my way or the highway” is unlikely to cut ice with Iran today, especially in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in June. The hardliners were perhaps eagerly placing their bets on the return of Trump with a view to delivering a knockout blow to the moderates, as the situation could have been worse in terms of further ratcheting up the punitive economic measures that were once again reinstated in 2018. Now with a Biden presidency, hardliners in Teheran would be worried about the leadership in that country enticed back to the table on the prospect of a small opening up on the sanctions front, especially as it pertains to the sale of oil.
In ways more than one, the ball is in Biden’s court. He not only has to smoothen ruffled feathers in the bureaucratic, intelligence and political communities but also factor in global players outside of the European club such as Russia and China. Blowing hot and cold on Moscow and Beijing on a variety of issues, including trade and accusations of meddling in domestic matters, is unlikely to get Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping on board. And expecting Iranian leaders to sign on dotted lines without meeting them partially on the sanctions front is a definite non-starter. As a senior foreign policy practitioner told this writer some time ago, “Successful diplomacy means that you should let the other fellow walk away with something from the table.”
A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.