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.