Former Vice President and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden made clear that he intends on America rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, if he becomes president—if Iran returns to full compliance as well. But in a recent number of opinion articles about the future of U.S.-Iran relations, many Washington foreign policy luminaries have urged a prospective Biden administration to not rejoin the deal, but instead, to insist on new negotiations based on demands that Iran make a wide range of new concessions. Various authors have also called for these new negotiations to only begin many months after the inauguration or for arrangements that would include such new parties as Iran’s regional adversaries and Congressional Republicans.
Cost of Continuity
A decision by a future Biden administration to continue the “maximum pressure” policy for the better part of a year after inauguration would not be a matter of mere dithering. This would involve targeting banks and corporations across the world, as the Trump administration has done, for even ordinary economic interactions for Iran. It would mean continuing policies that have resulted in life-saving medication and testing supplies to be denied to Iranian patients during a pandemic that is certainly increasing the death count.
Furthermore, the destabilizing effects of Trump’s policies would persevere. The recent lull in kinetic episodes between Iran and the United States is largely because of Iran’s restraint aimed at not allowing Trump a rally around the flag moment to aid his reelection. The effects on U.S. policy would also be significant. The European allies that Biden has promised to rebuild American ties with would undoubtedly be aggrieved by the continued undermining of their economic sovereignty, and the Saudi-centric configuration of U.S. policies in the Middle East may have to largely stay in place despite Biden’s stated desire to “reassess” the relationship.
To address this, the mentioned experts have put forth the idea of a “deescalation agreement” principally aimed at defusing the negative consequences of Trump’s policy for the United States. Such an agreement, it is argued, would involve Iran agreeing to unilateral implementation of the JCPOA in exchange for very limited sanctions relief and largely symbolic measures like lifting the travel ban. Even if Iran would somehow be willing to abandon its position regarding negotiations, this structure would be rejected both because of the limited benefits and because it would remove most of the incentive for the Biden administration to negotiate any future accord in good faith.
Leverage, Credibility and Future Expectation
The analyses mentioned above, implicitly or explicitly, position their arguments on the idea that America should not immediately rejoin the JCPOA as it would squander what they see as the “leverage” that abandoning the deal has generated. While it may be unfashionable for Democratic, or even unaffiliated, foreign policy experts to liken their prescriptions with Donald Trump’s policies, these arguments are underpinned by a key part of the worldview Donald Trump has brought (or at least reinforced) to Washington: The notion that what matters is the exertion of raw power and that other issues like diplomatic credibility—one’s reputation for honoring accords they’ve stricken—are at least overblown.
The future expectations theory of sanctions posits that countries are hard-pressed to make concessions to senders (sanctioning states) if the two are adversaries. This is because the sanctions regime is interpreted as being part of a larger security competition that will continue henceforth, making any tradeoff a “double concession” for the targeted state that would disadvantage the country in future episodes of hostility.
In this context, whether new concessions can create actual sanctions relief is questionable. Research shows that Iran’s anemic sanctions relief benefit during the years where the United States abided by the JCPOA was in no small part due to the concern of financial institutions about a “snap back” of U.S. or UN sanctions that would engulf their financial arrangements in legal jeopardy. This made them hesitant about engaging the Iranian market which also obstructed other economic activity by companies that rely upon these banks to manage their financial flows. This concern would obviously be even greater now. So, the notion of accepting a somewhat watered-down version of “maximum pressure” while a new years-long negotiation process is undertaken only to reach some conclusion shortly before Biden’s term ends would hardly appeal to Tehran.
Most importantly, any observer of Washington would have to admit that Iran giving credence to the “maximum pressure” strategy, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, would be met with dozens of new sanctions bills in Congress. A Biden administration may even decide to reimpose some sanctions under new rationalizations to elicit new concessions. If reneging on the deal gave way to the better deal, then why not repeat the same strategy to get the even better deal. It's not as if hawks in Congress (or Saudi Arabia and Israel) will run out of demands. This also makes the idea of giving Saudi, Israeli and Congressional Republicans a soft veto seem like paving a road to nowhere. Particularly if the Republicans prioritize making Biden a one-term president, as they did with Barack Obama, or if the Saudi and Israeli elites are, as some scholars have argued, concerned that a modus vivendi between Tehran and Washington might render them less valuable to America as allies.
The idea that, for Iran, “negotiation is not optional” reflects an overconfidence among American analysts during the Trump administration about Iran. Almost a year after Trump had withdrawn from the JCPOA, a number of opinion articles from Democratic foreign policy acolytes insisted that Iran would continue to abide by the JCPOA, even without any economic benefit, simply to be spared a military assault. They, therefore, called for further pressure to extract new concessions. A short time after the last of these articles were published, President Hassan Rouhani announced that, after a year of strategic patience, Iran will begin to withdraw from its specific obligations under the deal.
This future expectation problem was largely avoided with the JCPOA because Obama seemed to genuinely want, as Rouhani did, a new dynamic in the Iran-U.S. relationship that was based on a more civil competition with some cooperation rather than aggressive enmity that has characterized the bilateral relationship over the last forty years. Furthermore, critical to reaching the JCPOA was America abandoning a central feature of its negotiation posture, the zero-enrichment demand. That constituted a de facto recognition of Iranian enrichment.
If Biden delays real engagement for the better part of a year or takes up Trump’s policy, even with cosmetic and some substantive changes, there will be little actual incentive for Iran to negotiate as any actual benefit that comes from an agreement would seem minuscule, ineffectual and fleeting. This is why losing diplomatic credibility is not frivolous and why the frequent predictions of Iran’s capitulation anchored to the reciting of unemployment and inflation statistics fail to materialize.
Alireza Ahmadi is a researcher and analyst focused on U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. His work has been published by the National Interest, The Hill and Al-Monitor. Follow him on Twitter @AliAhmadi_Iran.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since publication.