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Biden Corrects Obama’s Mistake

Biden Corrects Obama’s Mistake

Friday, 4 December, 2020 - 11:45
Elias Harfoush
Lebanese writer and journalist

The question of how Joe Biden will deal with Iran once he is sworn into office on January 20 has loomed large over most of the region’s analyses. There was apprehension about the four years that will follow Trump’s term, especially after the circulation of reports about Biden’s desire to rejoin the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump had abandoned, reimposing stringent sanctions on Tehran in 2018.

The fears were justified: Biden had been Barack Obama’s vice president. Their administration took part in the negotiations for the deal with Iran alongside the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. Another source of apprehension is that Anothony Blinken, Biden’s pick for foreign secretary pending congressional approval, was John Kerry’s deputy secretary during the last two years of Obama’s term, when the agreement was being implemented; so he was among its proponents. The agreement stipulated that Iran would allow monitoring of its nuclear sites in return for sanctions being lifted, allowing it to export its oil again, which provided its treasury with revenue that it had been deprived of. However, the agreement with Iran left a glaring loophole unaddressed, a loophole that the Iranian regime capitalized on to continue, through the militias it sponsors, to meddle in the affairs of the region’s countries where possible, spreading internal unrest in these countries. In other words, the nuclear agreement opened a window allowing Tehran to breathe some fresh air, but it left another window open to Iran’s worrying project.

On different occasions, Biden has addressed fears about Obama regaining “custody” of the White House during the former’s term. He replied saying that his tenure would not be akin to his former president’s third term; then came his latest statements, reported by the New York Times, touching on several internal and external issues. What is relevant to us about these statements is that Biden proved, while discussing the relationship with Iran, he understands why Iran’s neighbors, especially the Gulf states, are worried about a return to the Obama administration’s policy of appeasement. The latter did not care about these states’ fears, although they are in the closest proximity to Iran, the most hard hit by this policy and the most worried about it.

Their criticism of Obama’s policy did not stem from opposition to lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for monitoring of its facilities. The source of their discontent was the agreement’s disregard for their valid misgivings about the Iranian project and its exclusion of the countries directly affected by this project.

That is why Biden’s statements while discussing the potential revival of the nuclear agreement with Iran were very significant. For they leave the impression that he realizes it had been a mistake for the Obama administration to ignore Gulf concerns and proceed with the agreement even though it undercut their interests. Biden now says that Iran’s Arab neighbors would be part of any potential new deal with the country, mentioning Saudi Arabia and the UAE explicitly.

It is natural, then, to expect the Iranian authorities to have qualms about these statements; after all, Tehran was pinning its hopes on a Biden victory. Media outlets close to it did not miss an opportunity to convey that its major decisions hinge on the US election results: the nature of the relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kahdimi, the formation of Saad Hariri’s government in Lebanon, and the Houthis’ ongoing escalation in Yemen. Even retaliating to the series of assassinations that had targeted several prominent Iranian figures, security, strategic and scientific, the latest of whom was “father of the Iranian nuclear program” Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, is under the mercy of “strategic patience,” which could be taken to refer to patiently awaiting Trump’s departure and the arrival of “Iran’s candidate” to the White House.

Joe Biden's statements made to the New York Times came as a shock to Tehran and its camp in the region, who had been expecting the Iranian nuclear issue to be managed as it had been during the blissful days of the negotiations conducted with the Obama administration.

But nothing of the sort will transpire this time. Washington’s return to the agreement under Biden’s administration will be conditioned on Tehran going back to “strict compliance” with its stipulations. Such a return would be the starting point for subsequent negotiations aimed at ensuring the realization of two objectives that had been ignored by the previous talks:

The first: after the agreement is reinstated, a round of negotiations would begin shortly thereafter to agree on an extension of the period during which hindrances would be imposed on Iran in order to ensure that it cannot produce the fissile materials required for the development and manufacture of a nuclear bomb. Biden set this period at 15 years, stressing that Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon that constitutes a security threat to the United States.

As for the second, it concerns what Biden unequivocally referred to as dealing with Iran’s malign activities, which are carried out by its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Biden proposes that the negotiators who participated in the previous negotiations be joined by Iran’s Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular.

We are, therefore, before a plan to correct the nuclear agreement and expand the circle of negotiators in order to guarantee that if it were reached, the deal would be stable and complied with. It would also ensure the potential for improved stability in our region through the involvement of those harmed by the Iranian expansionism, as this would enable them to obtain the pledges and commitments they need from Tehran. Compliance would be subject to international monitoring, and the reinstatement of the agreement would be contingent upon this compliance. Biden affirmed this by saying that the US can always restore sanctions if this were necessary and that Iran is aware of this.

How will Iran respond to the new offer that Joe Biden has put on the table? It is no secret that Iran is going through a tough time, blatantly incapable of retaliating to assassinations and stifled by an economic crisis. It now finds itself faced with the choice of either engaging with the new US president’s plan or entrenching the isolation imposed on it, which is likely to be aggravated as, in contrast to the situation during Trump’s term, America’s European allies are expected to align their position with that of the US.

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