Biden needs Russia and China’s help to cut Trump’s Gordian knot on Iran

South Korean-flagged tanker Hankuk Chemi carrying 7200 tonnes of ethanol escorted by Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats off Oman for polluting the Gulf with chemicals, January 4, 2021  

In international diplomacy, while creating narratives, there is a criticality about the timeline over normative values. Iran’s announcement on December 4 that it has begun to enrich uranium to 20% purity at its underground Fordow facility may create a new narrative that that country is tiptoeing toward striking distance of weapons-grade levels. 

Alongside, an incident of Iranian interdiction of a South Korean-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz for causing pollution, fuels that narrative. The US and its regional partners including Israel continue to hype up tensions on the pretext of possible Iranian reprisals one year after the US attack which killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani on 3rd January 2019, as well as the more recent assassination of Iranian chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27 last year. 

The normative value being applied designates Iran’s “malign behaviour”. But if the timeline is shifted from time present to May 8, 2018, the narrative assumes different shape and an appropriate response to the situation surrounding Iran becomes possible. 

That was the day, twenty months ago, that the US President Trump condemned the JCPOA as “defective at its core” and announced the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal, proclaiming that his administration “will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions” against Iran as well as new economic penalties in a strategy under the by-now-famous rubric “maximum pressure.” 

Iran’s initial reading was that it was Trumpean bluster. President Hassan Rouhani described the US move as “psychological warfare” and announced in a televised speech that despite Trump’s decision, Tehran would remain in the international accord. In Rouhani’s words, “If we achieve the deal’s goals in cooperation with other members of the deal, it will remain in place … By exiting the deal, America has officially undermined its commitment to an international treaty.” 

The European countries regretted Trump’s decision and called on Iran and the international community to stick with the deal; the EU said it is “determined to preserve it.” But in practical terms, neither did anything of substance. European powers behaved like headless chicken, terrified of Trump’s wrath and US sanctions, and would do nothing to fulfil their own commitments under the JCPOA. 

However, as Trump’s sanctions began to bite and hit Iran’s economy hard and imposed hardships on the people, Tehran decided to exercise its right to take actions curtailing its commitments under the 2015 deal (as allowed under JCPOA.) But even while doing so, Tehran pledged that it would return to the JCPOA if other signatories also did so. 

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Iran exercised a remarkable degree of “strategic patience” even in the face of blatant provocations such as the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Trump’s orders and of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Mossad with Israeli PM Netanyahu’s approval. 

Therefore, US president-elect Joe Biden’s estimation that Iran’s nuclear acceleration and the simmering regional tensions are consequences of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach is well-founded. Biden’s willingness to lift the nuclear sanctions and bring the US back into the deal — if Iran returns to compliance — is the only way out of the current dangerous situation. Rouhani has said that Iran is also prepared to return to compliance if the US lifts its sanctions. 

Put differently, Iran’s enrichment announcement yesterday fits into a timeline that originated in May 2018. Prima facie, the announcement only highlights just how thorny the process of untying the Gordian knot has become, thanks to machinations by the US, egged on by its West Asian allies.

In principle, if Iran enriches significant quantities of uranium to 20%, its nuclear “breakout time” shrinks to months instead of years but the key issue is about Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium. At this point, Iran’s domestic politics comes into play, which is presently geared to the forthcoming presidential election in June the outcome of which is going to be crucial to the balance of political forces and future Iranian policies. 

Clearly, the move toward 20% enrichment is part of a law that has been passed by the Iranian parliament over Rouhani’s objections but he is obliged to implement. Now, the law itself was an expression of the national outrage ver the grotesque murder of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Mossad agents and it also calls for the suspension of UN nuclear inspections if sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors aren’t lifted by February. 

The linkage is obvious: the IAEA inspectors have shared valuable intelligence with the Americans which became inputs for Mossad to plot the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Make no mistake, Rouhani will have no option but to slam the door shut on the IAEA inspectors if the US sanctions are not lifted by February. 

That of course would introduce an altogether new level of criticality, since the intrusive IAEA inspection, unprecedented for any NPT member country in history, is at the core of the JCPOA. 

In sum, Trump is leaving behind an extremely contentious proposition for Biden to return to the JCPOA. Biden will face fierce opposition to a swift return to the deal from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as their sidekicks in America’s political class — Republicans and Democrats alike. 

The real paradox here is that the three West Asian musketeers who prodded Trump insist that Biden doesn’t realise that he’s been dealt a strong hand by his predecessor and all he needs to do is to just keep playing the maximum pressure” game until Iran’s leaders cry out for Mother Mary.

Meanwhile, all bets are off if the US and Israel create some causus belli during the fortnight ahead to attack Iran. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has publicly warned that Israel is up to mischief. Indeed, for Netanyahu, it will be a big scoop in the forthcoming election in March in Israel if he could claim credit for destroying Iran. 

However, assuming apocalyptic events do not happen, what lies ahead? The all-important factor here is the sequencing that could give traction to Biden’s plans to engage Iran. Iran says it will return to compliance once the US lifts sanctions, while Biden says he’ll lift sanctions once Iran returns to compliance. 

Succinctly put, Iranian steps can be paired with US sanctions relief. Thus, Iran could ship out enriched uranium — say, to Russia (as once before) — in a staged process. Equally, via executive orders, Biden can lift many of those sanctions without congressional approval. 

Tony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, has said the US will work in partnership with Europe on Iran and the good part is that European allies are eager to facilitate dialogue between the US and Iran. 

This is where Russia and China come in, too. Over Iran nuclear issue and the preservation of JCPOA, these two big powers are not only on the same page as the US’ European allies but are also far better placed than anyone else to leverage influence over the leadership in Tehran. 

The Biden administration in the very first days or weeks of the incoming US presidency may have to seek a selective engagement of Russia and China, in a constructive spirit, regarding the situation surrounding Iran. 

The heart of the matter is that If Biden wants a deal with Rouhani, he’ll have just five months to get it. That is an impossibly tight timeline. Moscow has signalled that it is willing to help. 

In an extraordinary message of greeting on Christmas and the New Year addressed to Biden, President Vladimir Putin expressed the hope that “by building a relationship in the spirit of equality and consideration for each other’s interests, Russia and the US could contribute much to enhancing stability and security at the regional and global levels.”  

On January 3, in what may amount to a reaction in real time, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan drew the analogy of the cold war to underscore that even at the height of the cold war, with both the US and Russia threatening each other with thousands of nuclear warheads arrayed against each other on a hair trigger”, and amidst all the mutual rhetoric about “existential competition” with each other, there were areas of cooperation — “more specifically, on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation.” 

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Sullivan added that today, the US and Russia “can act in their national interests” to advance an arms control and strategic stability agenda — and that is also something that Biden has “tasked us to pursue from right outside the gate”. He announced that Biden intends to renew the new START agreement, which is due to expire on 5th February. 

Without doubt, Sullivan’s remarks would have been carefully noted in the Kremlin as tantamount to a response to Putin’s unprecedented overture to America’s president-elect.