The chessboard of US-Iran relations: Obama, Trump, Biden

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Dr Huma Baqai

EARLIER this year, President Biden said the international system is coming apart. He prom ised to salvage America’s reputation, and said he is in a hurry. “There will be no time to lose”, he wrote in the Foreign Affairs Magazine. One issue on which he really has to move fast, is US-Iran relations. Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was responded by “maximum resistance” by Iran.

The country has already withstood sanctions for three years without giving in to the demand of Trump Administration. Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and has done everything to completely demolish it, including slapping very depleting last-minute sanctions on Iran in December 2020.

The setback has been for the Americans. America got isolated on the issue in the western world and as predicted Iran went into a strategic convergence with China and Russia. Moreover, Iran is closer to acquiring the technology needed for a nuclear weapon then it was before the deal. It has resumed enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent purity. It has also begun construction activity at both the Natanz and Fordow nuclear plants, where they appear to be building additional underground facilities, and installing centrifuges. Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged that Iran has become Al Qaeda new “home base, and was time for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-Al Qaeda axis. These allegations were made without providing any hard evidence. The comments were rejected by Iran as war mongering lies”.

US-Iran relations are at a crucial point of inflection. President Obama’s greatest achievement was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015. According to the deal, Iran agreed to limit enriching and accept stronger monitoring in exchange for relief form sanctions. In 2018, US under President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA. The withdrawal was largely triggered by both Saudi Arabia and Israel growing weary of Iran’s interjection in Syria, Iraq and Yamen. Shortly after President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei pledged Iran would not tolerate “the simultaneous restrictions of its economy and its nuclear program.”

Iran since has been emboldened, however, continues to exercise strategic restraint, while responding to American provocations, but at the same time sending poignant messages to America in general and the region in particular. The missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery in September 2019, being a case in point, which shut down nearly five percent of global oil production.

In January 2020, Qassim Solemani, the powerful leader of Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was assassinated by the US. The Iranian response of strike on the Ayn al Asad military base was a measured restrained response. In November 2020 Iran top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a brazen attack in Tehran. Iran blamed Israel for it, but chose not to respond immediately. Most analysts and commentators believe US withdrawal from JCPOA has only made the conflict matrix of the region more volatile. It has if anything resulted in a more aggressive Iran and a US that comes across as a country relying more on rhetoric than action on the ground.
Moreover, it has made restoration of trust in US as a guarantor of deal and negotiation a huge challenge. Biden has made it clear that he would rejoin the agreement and use a renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with allies to strengthen and extend it, while pressuring Iran against its regional activities. This is easier said than done. The optimism on the American side to negotiate a better agreement are at least for now unrealistic. The distrust for US in Iran runs high. Both tightening and lengthening Iran’s nuclear constraints will not be easy. Iran may want to return to JCPOA to ease its economic sanctions, it is in a state of double jeopardy because of the pandemic. However, Iran is a resilient state. It takes great pride in its ability to resist western pressure autarkic “resistance economy to Hassan Rouhani’s policy it is a resilient state. It takes great pride in its ability to resist western pressure. To the Iranian hardliner, the country’s economic health is of lesser significance than its security, ideological purity and national aspirations. Many of them actually prefer an autarkic “resistance economy” to Rouhani’s policy of nuclear cooperation with the West.

Elections in Iran are due in June 2021. No one in Iran can afford to look soft on the US. The window of opportunity is narrow; however, it must be used by both US and Iran to return to JCPOA.

Israel’s reaction is not of any help. Its top generals have responded to Biden’s plans by taking their gloves off. The top generals warned attack plans against Iran were being revised and said any US return to the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran would be wrong. Such remarks in public domain by Israel’s military top brass on American policy are rare and never without a pre-approval by the Israeli government. One of Netanyahu’s Minister said publicly, if the US rejoins the nuclear deal, which is something Biden believes lies in the US national interest – Israel will go to war. The situation becomes more confusing with a newly appointed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying on record that US was “a long way” from deciding whether to join nuclear deal with Iran and It would need to see what Tehran actually did to resume complying with the historic pact.
As a footnote, a less ambiguous US policy for the region and Iran is the need of the day, it has been lacking for decades now. US has tried the hard track of sanctions and it has not worked. It is time toexplore the options of engagement, support, aid, and soft power.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.