Sam Menassa

Will Washington Take Back Biden’s Gifts to Tehran?

I was struck by a comment on the article I wrote last week: Biden...Summertime Santa Claus?, which discussed Washington potentially returning to the nuclear agreement. “If Biden plays Santa Claus in the summer, the US administration will certainly take its presents back before Christmas….” “Biden is no Santa Claus… no agreement will be signed...”

Of course, these are personal impressions that do not necessarily reflect the mood in the US or the intentions of the administration. However, we could build on them to go over the direction things are taking in both the US and Iran and the implications either of the two outcomes would have on the countries of the region: the agreement is resumed or it is not.

Most predictions, including that of High Representative for European Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, indicate that an agreement is imminent. As we await Iran’s response to the US response, it is worth noting the indications of change within the US. The general mood in both parties, in addition to the independents, is weariness with the sharp tensions between the camps of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

On the Republican side, the results of the Republican primary in Wyoming, where the anti-Trump candidate Liz Cheney lost to Harriet Hageman by a very large margin, and the race in Alaska, where pro-Trump candidate Sarah Palin is the favorite, demonstrate the depth of the divisions within the Republican Party as established party members lose out to rivals whose only advantage is that they are supporters, even fanatical supporters of the Trump wing.

The Republicans realizing that they have lost all moderation in favor of Trumpist populism may have implications for the results of the upcoming Midterm elections in November, potentially weakening the Republican tsunami. On the Democrat side, the party’s disappointment with President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the administration in general is no secret; indeed, the Democratic Party was not particularly enthusiastic about Biden’s nomination to begin with.

Biden’s firm stance on the Russian war on Ukraine and his attempts to patch things up with Middle East allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, have not erased the shock that followed the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country being handed back to the Taliban or the tepidness he showed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which may be among the most important challenging facing US foreign policy during his presidency. Meanwhile, the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri did not have the same impact as that of Osama bin Laden. The internal and overlapping problems of these two parties may open the door to a different scenario than the Republicans deciding the elections and the Democrats losing their majority in both houses of Congress.

In Iran, after Tehran responded to the European proposals, it is now going over the American response to it. It seems that the regime is preparing its cadres and the wider public to accept a settlement if the US responds positively. Senior officials have begun mobilizing the media, and it was reported that Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, briefed prominent journalists on the terms of the emerging deal in preparation for building broad domestic consensus around it. As Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has already stated, Tehran’s line, in the media at least, is that the ball is now in Washington’s court, and it is stressing the need for the United States to concede and provide guarantees if the deal is to get over the line. However, we also have to note that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not talked about the negotiations in weeks. We might be waiting for the US position to develop and become clearer. He could be hedging against domestic divergences in opinion as hardliners demand more concessions, or perhaps he wants to avoid a swift deal.

All outcomes are possible, and Tehran’s final position might be more intransigent than the Americans expect. Moreover, we should keep in mind that failure to reach an agreement or at least continue negotiations remains a possibility because of domestic factors and competition among power centers within Iran. International factors are also at play, especially the tensions between the West in general and Moscow and Beijing, who are part of the JCPOA. The most prominent and confusing question, however, remains why Tehran would return to an agreement that could be annulled, with Biden’s gifts taken back by Washington.

What about the repercussions of whether or not the US returns to the agreement or on moderate Arab countries in particular, Israel, the war in Yemen, and the countries of the Levant, namely Iraq, Syria and Lebanon? This question is especially pertinent after Borrell said the agreement will not solve all problems and acknowledged that Iran worries the countries of the region for many other reasons besides its nuclear program.

The expected return to the agreement raises two questions: Will it pave the way for settling the US and Iranian’s issues with one another, or will its implications stop at freezing Iran’s military nuclear program? How will the US deal with Iran’s expansionism in the region through its local subordinates? The answers may allow us to anticipate the reactions of the moderate Arab countries, which we have seen glimpses of from the summit in El-Alamein, Egypt, that brought together Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Amman, Bahrain and Baghdad, who were building on the summits that preceded them in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh and President Biden’s recent visit to Jeddah.

Both scenarios would imply pain in the Levant: returning to the agreement would get money flowing into Tehran, which would directly imply funds flowing to its allies in the countries it controls, leaving the Levant entirely isolated from the Arab states and fully under Iranian control.

Here, we must also point to Türkiye turning to the Syrian regime because of Russian pressure exerted as part of its effort to reinforce Bashar al-Assad’s regime and compensate for its reduced presence in the country because it is busy in Ukraine. The second goal Russia hopes to achieve from this is to contain Iran’s growing influence in Syria. If no agreement is reached, the Iranians would be fully integrated into the Russian Chinese axis, which would inflame ongoing disputes and conflicts, especially given the tensions between the West and Russia.

The axis of moderate Arab countries will pursue the same goals in either case: regionally, protecting their countries through political and military alliances that are needed to confront the Iranian incursion is incoming in both cases, which obligates those who are reluctant to abandon their reservations and reconsider how a comfortable or ferocious Iran would impact them. Internationally, after having strengthened and enhanced regional integration, the moderate Arab countries are seeking to ensure the implementation of what had been agreed upon during Biden’s visit to the region- both the open and unannounced resulting pledges and agreements that were made- regarding the solidity of the US role and involvement in the region.

In this context, Israel, which is apprehensive and let down by Washington’s actions, plays a prominent role that its leaders never openly admit to playing. While it is indeed busy with its elections and domestic problems, Israel knows what would happen if a deal that it prefers over war is reached, especially if Iran is allowed to maintain its centrifuges.

Keeping these centrifuges would mean that Iran would have the capacity to become a nuclear power whenever it chooses. The Israeli role will be crucial in the coming weeks, and it begins with striving, alongside the moderate Arab states, to ensure a sustainable active American return to the region in support of its allies. Second, it must adopt a different approach to managing relations with the Palestinians such that a road map for a just, realistic peace with them could be laid, thereby snatching a card the opportunists in Tehran love to play.