But time may be running out for a meaningful opening with Iran. Sweeping U.S. sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy by the Trump administration remain in place. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to enrich uranium at levels greater than what was prescribed by the 2015 deal, whose terms Tehran says the United States first abrogated. “In public, both sides continue to wait for the other to prove its good faith with ‘you, first’ rhetoric,” my colleagues Karen DeYoung and Kareem Fahim wrote earlier this week.
“We could go tomorrow,” a senior administration official told them. “But we’re not going to cut corners in getting it right.”
In the background, though, there are growing questions over the appetite of either party to actually reach a new dispensation. The White House is wary of the possible backlash both in Washington and in some corners of the Middle East should it make concessions to Iran. Its slow approach to the situation has alarmed some advocates of rapprochement, who recognize the need to “go fast” before conditions become even more unfavorable to diplomacy. But it has been cheered by figures as unlikely as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and former Middle East envoy, who hailed Biden in a recent op-ed for calling “Iran’s bluff.”
Iran may not be bluffing. Though the country’s economy has been hit badly by the sanctions, the regime itself has proved relatively resilient. Upcoming elections in June are expected to yield a more hard-line government than the one that currently exists — possibly complicating the Biden administration’s stated desire to not only bring Iran back into the nuclear agreement, but also to expand the discussion to other issues such as Iran’s use of proxy forces in the Middle East, its ballistic missile program and its holding of political hostages.
Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told Today’s Worldview that the longer the impasse drags on, “the more the Iranians come to the conclusion that the U.S. is not willing to relieve sanctions” and the harder it will be for Biden to not only salvage the nuclear deal, but to press for the follow-on agreements with Iran that the United States and its allies seek.
In an interview with Politico this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran would consider other U.S. concerns once Washington lifted sanctions linked to the nuclear deal, but suggested that scenario was not close. “What we see as U.S. policy is exactly the same as the Trump administration; we haven’t seen any change in policy,” he said.
Biden officials stress that’s not the case. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign has failed … and should be a thing of the past,” Robert Malley, the administration’s special envoy to Iran, told BBC’s Persian service on Thursday.
He said that the administration wants “to get to the position where the U.S. can lift sanctions again and Iran can come back into compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal.” Malley added that the Biden administration was open to talks with the Iranians on the way forward, but not necessarily in the sequence that Tehran wants — with sanctions lifted first.
The diplomatic process is “not that easy,” said Malley. “It’s not like you turn on a light switch.”
In a separate interview, Malley indicated that Iran’s elections weren’t figuring into U.S. calculations. But they are probably influencing those of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who may be seeking a changing of the guard. “Khamenei worries that an early economic opening could turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the moderate-reformist camp by giving Iranian people hope,” noted a report published by the Atlantic Council. “While, at present, it looks as though turnout for the June 18 presidential elections will be historically low, a breakthrough with the U.S. has the potential of translating into a bigger showing that would work against Khamenei’s plan to put a hardliner in the presidential office.”
Amid heady talk in Iran about the relative success of the regime’s sanctions-busting “resistance” economy, some analysts suggest U.S. leverage over Iran could diminish in the months to come. “The conservatives aligned with the supreme leader are determined to prove to the West and to their domestic rivals that Iran will continue challenging U.S. hegemony in its neighborhood regardless of sanctions and maximum pressure,” wrote Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech. “If anything, this group argues, sanctions will have helped Iran reduce its dependence on oil and on the West.”
Iran skeptics in the West don’t place much stock in the theater of Iran’s domestic politics. But their foes in Iran make similar claims. “Many in Washington are of the opinion that it doesn’t matter who wins Iranian elections,” said Nasr. “Ironically, many in Tehran say the same thing about the U.S.”
Progressives in Washington are growing impatient with Biden’s perceived dawdling on Iran and lament the administration’s decision to bomb Iranian proxies in Syria in response to alleged Iranian-linked attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq. Some officials in the Biden administration “seem to have bought the argument that the Trump sanctions give us leverage that we can use to get concessions from the Iranians,” Joe Cirincione, former president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation group, told the left-leaning Jewish Currents.
But the current phase of escalation — including a surge in attacks from the Iranian-linked Houthis in Yemen — makes future talks all the more complicated. “The dilemma for Biden’s team is that they have a lot on their plate,” said Nasr, pointing to competition with China and Russia, the coronavirus pandemic and America’s own tense domestic politics. “They would like the Middle East to matter less, but the current policy approach gives Iran the path to make the Middle East more of a problem.”