‌Oh look, a totally predictable stalemate has begun between Biden and Iran

In a move that absolutely everyone should have seen coming, the Biden administration and Iran are settling into a standoff over the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about the fate of the erstwhile agreement in his first press conference following his Senate confirmation. In response to a question about Iran’s demand that the United States lift sanctions prior to Iran coming back into compliance, Blinken responded that the Biden administration has been “very clear” in its position that Iran must first resume compliance before the United States does the same. Once there, the two sides can use that as a “platform to build…what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic to in the relationship to Iran.” Blinken admitted that we are still a “long ways” from that point.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Blinken’s statement on Twitter with a “reality check” for the new Secretary of State. Zarif reaffirmed the Iranian position that since the United States was the first to violate the JCPOA — among other sins — it is incumbent on the Americans to take the first step back to the deal. Zarif didn’t mention anything about Blinken’s proposed “other issues,” which probably means Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts like Syria and its missile program, but past statements indicate those are both nonstarters.

Viewing Blinken’s press conference through a pair of heavily rose-tinted glasses, one could make an argument that his statement represents the first awkward steps toward a return to diplomacy, a first-move position meant to anchor the negotiation on favorable terms before sitting down to seek a suitable compromise. In an ideal world, the Biden administration veterans of the Obama era negotiations — of which there are many — have already taken steps to set up a backchannel with some of their old contacts. This is impossible to know from a non-insider’s perspective, but judging solely on the public diplomacy, the rhetoric does not seem promising. To Iranian ears, Blinken’s response sounds all too familiar: American duplicity shrouded in accusation, and a demand that Iran should bear the burden for cleaning up a mess not of its own making.

When, or perhaps if, negotiations do resume under the Biden administration, the terms of the discussion will need to focus as much on Iran’s saving-face as they will the nuts and bolts of nuclear capabilities and sanctions. The ease with which Donald Trump first abandoned and then degraded the original deal has been a millstone around the necks of Iranian politicians who championed diplomacy as a means of problem-solving and national improvement. In particular, the destruction of the deal has harmed President Hassan Rouhani’s standing within Iranian political circles and, by extension, those of the moderate-reformist camp.

As the faces of the nuclear deal in Iran, Rouhani and Zarif continue to suffer near-constant ridicule from hardliner opponents for their gullibility in placing any faith in the Americans to keep their word. Overcoming that level of animosity and suspicion will be a tremendous hurdle to clear with the limited political capital afforded a lame duck president in his final few months in office. With elections looming in June, each day spent on the formalities of strategic posturing is a day wasted toward rebuilding some semblance of constructive engagement with Tehran before a new administration takes over. The early conventional wisdom among Iran-watchers is that the next president is likely to be at least somewhat to the right of Rouhani, and therefore less amenable to negotiating a second deal with the United States.

For Biden to achieve his goals on Iran, he will have to acknowledge the mistakes of his predecessors. Here, he has a small built-in advantage given who his immediate predecessor was. Still, it will also mean taking responsibility for the country’s past transgressions in a way few, if any, American presidents ever have before. Iranians have a long memory of American misdeeds, dating back to the 1953 coup, which still plays a significant role in Iranian political rhetoric. Iranians remember President George H. W. Bush’s refusal to apologize for the US Navy’s downing of an Iranian civilian airliner; they still recall American complicity with Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War; and they most certainly are aware of their inclusion in the infamous “Axis of Evil Speech.” To many Iranians, Trump was less an aberration than a continuation of a harshly unfair and unjust American Iran policy.

To change this view, Biden will have to be different, but more importantly, he’ll have to be fast.

Don’t Swim in the Threat Stream

After trudging through the chaos and dysfunction that was 2020, it’s still shocking to think there was once a moment during the early days of last year where the thing we were all worried about was the imminent possibility of war with Iran.

That fear was the product of the January 3, 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was, short of a head of state, as significant a figure as they come in global politics and conflict. As head of the IRGC Qods Force, he directed numerous Iranian operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. His success on the battlefield over a multi-decade career engendered an almost mythical aura about him. After all, how many Middle Eastern military figures rise to the status of household name in the West?

Since his death, Soleimani has been immortalized in various ways, including billboards, statues, a postage stamp, and at least one extremely bizarre panorama. In recent weeks, however, there has been intensifying speculation that these commemorations might take on a more kinetic form.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on this trend, noting how tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated in recent weeks leading up to the one year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination. One senior defense official, who was not named, expressed concern over an Iranian retaliatory attack, saying, “I would tell you that the threat streams are very real.”

As is typical with this genre of bland insinuation by nameless and faceless officials, the supporting details aren’t really there. Beyond a mention of Iran trafficking “advanced conventional weaponry” into Iraq — something they’ve been doing consistently for well over a decade now — there isn’t any tangible evidence that Iran is planning an attack in homage to their fallen hero’s memory. Naturally, our anonymous official cites security classification concerns while declining to offer any specifics, practically inviting the listener to fill in the blanks with their prejudices about Iranian intentions. Absent that evidence, the idea that Iran is “Up to Something” seems based on the generally accepted belief that Iran is an ideologically-driven menace dead set on creating chaos and destruction wherever they can. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

That we’re even talking about the possibility of an Iranian-led provocation is as much an indictment of the media ecosystem as it is the garbage-speak spewing officials spouting off about threat streams. If the current rhetoric is reminiscent of anything, it’s the vague warnings of imminent attack that allegedly served as justification for the Soleimani assassination a year ago. (If you want to go back further, you could say something similar about the rationale for the Iraq War in 2003, although at least the Bush administration respected our intelligence enough to fabricate their evidence.) Then, as now, there was supposed “intelligence” pointing to Iranian plans for complex operations against U.S. interests in the region. Then, as now, no one was allowed to see any of it.

In reality, the Islamic Republic does not have much to worry about at the moment, at least in terms of external threats. They hold the upper hand in Iraq, Bashar al Assad is firmly in control of the majority of Syria, and Trump is on his way out the door in less than three weeks. Even their self-appointed nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looks to be in real political peril for the first time in years (although bet against him in the next election at your own risk).

The coronavirus has indeed done considerable damage to Iran, but that hardly makes them unique among the nations of the world. Trump’s woefully misguided “maximum pressure” sanctions have heightened economic and medical problems, particularly for ordinary Iranians, the very people Trump and his cronies claim to care about, but they have not come close to imperiling the regime.

Since Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election in early November, Iranian officials up to and including the Supreme Leader have been explicit in their willingness to rejoin the JCPOA, also known as the Iran Deal, should Biden first recommit the United Stares to upholding its obligations under the agreement. Implicit in these statements is an acknowledgment of the differences Tehran sees between Biden and Trump. While they don’t exactly trust the incoming administration, there is at least a recognition that Biden will be easier to work with than Trump was.

Considering Iran’s strategic position, it seems unlikely that Iran will be the one to start a shooting war in the next couple of weeks. To date, there has still not been any apparent retaliation for the allegedly Israeli-led assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, on November 27. Despite Iranian avowals of revenge, that retribution is unlikely to materialize, if it ever does, before January 20, lest they disrupt the already tenuous transfer of power currently underway in the United States.

Instead, all eyes should be on what Trump does in his final fortnight and a half in office. As he lashes out in an ongoing attempt to cling to power and salt the earth for his replacement, igniting an international firestorm may seem like a viable, even attractive, option. So if any American defense officials are still out there searching for fresh threat streams, they may want to start looking in their own backyard.