(November 2, 2020 / JNS) No matter who wins the U.S. presidential elections on Nov. 3, they will immediately be confronted by Iran, which has been one of the United State’s most challenging foreign-policy issues for decades.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden have approached the issue of Iran with starkly different strategies, despite both being firmly against a nuclear-armed Iran. Under the Obama-Biden administration, America entered into the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—in 2015. However, under the Trump administration, the United States left the deal and has engaged in a campaign of “maximum pressure” that has meant increasing harsh sanctions on the regime.
Given these differing approaches, what would a Trump or Biden win mean for U.S. policy vis-à-vis Tehran?
A Trump win would mean “continuing to strangle Iran economically while rolling back its forces throughout the Middle East,” Richard Goldberg, the former director for countering Iran’s weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council, told JNS.
Middle East analyst and human-rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman echoed Goldberg, saying that the Trump administration “would likely have more freedom to put additional pressure on Iran and even perhaps back some additional disruptive measures, such as arrests of ships with arms going to Yemen or stopping gold for oil ships en route to Venezuela.”
United Against Nuclear Iran policy director Jason Brodsky told JNS that “it will be important for any incoming administration to recognize that the United States has amassed significant economic leverage over Iran. Whoever wins the presidency must use that leverage wisely. Rushing back into the existing JCPOA, which has already started to expire, would be a mistake.”
He cited that “there are significant obstacles to reviving the JCPOA—Iran’s demand for a return to the pre-2017 sanctions landscape and compensation are only two examples. Those will be nonstarters on both sides of the political aisle, as that could potentially mean Tehran demanding a relaxation of the terrorism-related sanctions which have been levied on the Islamic Republic since 2017.”
Brodsky called for whoever wins the election to “make an attempt to forge a bipartisan consensus on Iran.”
“There are significant voices in the Democratic Party that opposed the initial agreement with Tehran,” he said. “It’s not only about appeasing U.S. allies, but it’s also about doing the political legwork in Washington. One of the many flaws of the JCPOA was that lack of bipartisan buy-in.”
Brodsky also noted that “Iran is having its own presidential election in June 2021. Some argue that the United States should quickly revive the JCPOA to boost the political fortunes of the pragmatists in Tehran. But that’s a fundamental misreading of Iranian politics.”
“The decision over negotiations with the United States will ultimately come from the supreme leader, not the president, and will be shaped by the Supreme National Security Council,” he said.
‘Trump better at undermining agreements than creating new ones’
For either candidate, returning to talk with Iran will prove difficult.
“There is no easy path to diplomatic progress with Iran, no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election,” Barbara Slavin, who leads the Atlantic Council’s Future Iran Initiative, told JNS. “But the road is far clearer and smoother with a Biden win.”
“The history of the past three-and-a-half years shows that Trump is better at undermining previous agreements than creating new ones,” she said. “While Iran has been suffering economically due to U.S. sanctions, it has also become more self-reliant and boosted trade with China and its neighbors, especially Iraq.”
“Iran would certainly welcome sanctions relief from the U.S., but building on the deal will require more U.S. concessions, including on primary sanctions, and buy-in from Arab foes of Iran that have enjoyed the Trump administration’s harsh policies,” continued Slavin. “Even if it’s Biden, this won’t be an easy lift.”
Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on the Iran portfolio in the Obama administration, told JNS, “There might be an opportunity for diplomacy, no matter who wins.”
“I think it will probably be clear if Biden wins,” he continued. “Trump has expressed an interest in going back to negotiations and getting some kind of a deal with Iran.”
He said that such an agreement would resemble the JCPOA, but he wouldn’t want to call it that. “He would want to call it Donald Trump’s bigger and better deal or whatever. But I think its core components would still be [about Iran’s] nuclear [program].”
However, Goldenberg acknowledged that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump administration officials would not be supportive of such a deal. The Trump administration has, in fact, laid out a 12-point plan for Iran to rejoin the international community in order for it to “behave like a normal nation,” according to Pompeo.
Still, a Biden administration could get back into the JCPOA before the Iranian elections and then “hold off any sort of further, more complicated, negotiations until after,” speculated Goldenberg.
In order for there to be a deal with Iran that addresses the regime’s regional ambitions, he said, “you would need a first-step nuclear arrangement to be able to get to the issues.”
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