Iran hasn’t changed, even if the United States has

Hope springs eternal with Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. The grass is greener, the sun brighter, the air…well, let’s not talk about what’s in the air. At least the vaccines are rolling out.

Within the political realm, nowhere is this optimism more apparent than in the foreign policy arena. As the Biden team continues to take shape during the transition, the abundance of experience of its members has generated a hope, if not an expectation, that we may soon return to something resembling a status quo ante-Trump. Traditional alliances will be strengthened, reputations restored, agreements reentered, and so on.

Sitting atop the pile of foreign policy detritus accumulated during the Trump years is the JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal. Once the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice President for eight years, Trump and his cronies spent the past four years steadily dismantling the agreement and any semblance of Iran-U.S. trust along with it. Today, the agreement exists in little more than name only.

During the campaign, Biden made clear that a restoration of the deal would be a top priority for his administration. Since his victory, statements by prominent Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have bolstered the belief that a resurrection of the deal may be in the offing.

But while the headlines may be encouraging, the reality is somewhat more prosaic. Unlike Obama’s victory in 2008, Biden’s triumph over Trump is not likely to be seen as a global transformative moment. It is, undoubtedly, a necessary step back from the brink, but Biden will not be winning any Nobel prizes solely based on what he represents. With a global pandemic still raging and economic hardship along with it, things will still be very bad when Biden takes office on January 20. This is doubly true for Iran, which has not only been among the nations hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, but has also spent four years as one of the prime targets of Trump’s ire. Yet despite all they have endured, Iran has remained relatively resilient and steadfast in its beliefs, particularly regarding the JCPOA. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think that Biden’s victory has dramatically altered the playing field.

Looking a bit closer at the recent statements by Rouhani and Khomeini, it quickly becomes clear that not only is the Iranian position highly coordinated, it’s also the same one they have espoused since Trump left the deal in May 2018. The Iranian position is simple: the United States was the first to leave the deal and violate its commitments. Therefore, it must be the first to return. When the U.S. does this, the Iranians say, they will move back into compliance with the JCPOA. Presumably, this means rolling back the systematic breaches and extensions to the Iranian nuclear program they have implemented since the American departure.

Using oddly similar language — a clear signal of their coordination on the topic — both Khamenei and Rouhani said that all Biden needs to do is return to the deal, and “within an hour,” Iran will follow suit. Khamenei tied this act directly to the removal of sanctions, noting that “if sanctions are lifted…we should not delay.” Khamenei also reaffirmed his belief that the United States under Biden will still be antagonistic towards Iran. “My firm recommendation is not to trust the enemy,” he said.

The Iranians have been similarly clear on maintaining the scope of the original agreement. Any extension or renegotiation of the JCPOA’s terms remains strictly off limits for the Iranians. They repeated this position ad nauseam prior to and during the early stages of the Trump administration, when the narrative surrounding the JCPOA was mostly concerned with whether or not Trump would deploy his supposedly legendary dealmaking abilities to tackle what he called on the 2016 campaign trail “the worst deal ever.” In response, Iranian officials repeatedly said that Iran’s national defense, including its missile program, is not on the table. Similarly, the Iranians ruled out the possibility of extending the deal in any way to cover other areas of disagreement beyond the nuclear file, such as Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Understanding the nuances of the Iranian position will be key for Biden if he wants to gain a foothold for improving relations with Iran. To date, his official position suggests several slight but significant distinctions. His September 13 op-ed for CNN, for example, reverses the order of operations proposed by the Iranians, conditioning American participation in the deal on an Iranian return to “strict compliance.” Likewise, Biden suggests that this will prove a starting point for follow-on negotiations, in which the United States will, in conjunction with its allies, “work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

To have any real shot at success, Biden will need to act quickly. The hardline parliament that took over following the February 2020 elections recently passed legislation aimed at increasing tensions with the U.S. through an expansion of the nuclear program. The measure is a response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in late November. Many parliamentarians celebrated the bill’s passage with the familiar refrain of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” the chanting of which has become somewhat commonplace recently. Rouhani’s government officially opposes the legislation, and the Supreme Leader’s position on the matter is not yet known, but with presidential elections looming in June 2021, this regression to direct provocation may become the norm.

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