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A Biden-Rouhani Agreement can positively impact Iran’s political future

Mehran Haghirian

Atlantic Council - IranSource

November 12, 2020

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections may not only help revive US-Iran diplomacy, but could also boost the prospects of moderates and reformists in Iran following the presidency of Hassan Rouhani and the eventual passing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and subsequent re-imposition of sanctions have left Rouhani with his lowest approval rating since he first assumed office in 2013. It is conventional wisdom in Iran that the US “maximum pressure” campaign has significantly dimmed the fortunes of moderate and reformist factions in the upcoming June 2021 presidential elections in Iran.

However, the Biden administration can reverse this trend. From his inauguration on January 20, 2021, Biden will have seven months to reach some sort of agreement with the Rouhani administration prior to its departure from office. 

Some in Washington DC and others abroad argue that Biden should not rush to make a deal with Rouhani or re-enter the JCPOA and should use the “leverage” provided by sanctions. However, delaying de-escalation with Iran would further complicate inevitable negotiations.

History has shown that the reduction of tensions between the US and Iran has occurred more often under reformist and pragmatist administrations such as Rouhani’s. Regardless of one’s opinion of Rouhani’s past actions or inactions, he is also the only moderate candidate with a chance to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader. Almost all the other prospects are hardline conservatives with deep-seated anti-American views.

Assuming that a Biden administration is not seeking to overturn the Iranian system, its best course of action is to reach an interim agreement with Rouhani that will roll back Iran’s recent nuclear steps and boost its economy with sanctions relief. Such an agreement would resurrect the reformist and moderate factions’ chances of winning the presidential elections, as well as Rouhani’s chances of becoming the next Supreme Leader. 

Biden has declared that his administration “will make it a priority to set Iran policy right” and has vowed to reenter the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s returning to compliance with its commitments under the agreement. Furthermore, Biden stated that he wants to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.”

Iran’s nuclear actions since the US withdrew from the JCPOA are reversible. While incoming US officials cannot negotiate with Iran prior to Biden’s inauguration, Europeans could approach Tehran during the transition period to speed up Iran’s return to technical compliance. This would allow both sides to claim compliance as confidence-building measures shortly after inauguration.

Many of Biden’s foreign policy team either worked in the Barack Obama administration during the nuclear negotiations or have similar views and are familiar with Iranian diplomats currently running the foreign ministry. This should facilitate new talks.

Beyond resuscitating the JCPOA, Biden should consider a broader agreement with Iran.

Although Rouhani and Ayatollah Khamenei have insisted that Iran will not renegotiate the JCPOA, Iranian leaders have always kept the door open for talks with the United States.

Iran has demanded that the US lift all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and compensate it for the economic losses of the past three years. However, this issue could be settled through closed-door negotiations, where other economic incentives are provided.

One can envision a sit-down between the new secretary of state and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif soon after Biden’s inauguration in the context of the JCPOA, perhaps at the Joint Commission that includes the remaining signatories to the deal: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

Importantly, a universal prisoner exchange of Iranian nationals jailed in the United States for sanctions violations and Americans held in Iran, as offered by Zarif last year, could serve as a significant gesture of good will by both sides. Providing COVID-19 medical aid to Iran would also be a welcome signal of positive intent. 

If there is to be a grander agreement that includes other issues aside from Iran’s nuclear program, Iran must also receive some relief from US primary sanctions. It is long overdue to discuss the reasons behind the imposition of these sanctions. Moreover, any future agreement must have bipartisan support in the United States and will need Congressional approval to secure its longevity.

If an interim agreement is reached before the June 2021 elections, the moderate faction will have something to show during the campaign, which will challenge the notion that a hardliner will automatically succeed Rouhani. Moreover, if he manages to reach an agreement with the US, Rouhani will undoubtedly garner the support of the majority of Iranians like he did after signing an interim agreement in 2013. This will allow him to position himself as the person who finally resolved the dispute with the United States after forty-two years.

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