Trump, Biden and Iran. Photos: Gage Skidmore / edited by Shabbir Lakha / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article Trump, Biden and Iran. Photos: Gage Skidmore / edited by Shabbir Lakha / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Whoever holds the keys to the White House after the US election, the future relationship with Iran looks unlikely to improve, argues Terina Hine

The relationship between the US and Iran has become a key issue in the US election campaign over recent weeks. Kamala Harris, the Democrat’s Vice-Presidential candidate, even raised the topic in last week’s VP debate.

Depicted as a contest between the bullish Trump and more pragmatic Biden, the difference between the candidates may not be as stark as the rhetoric leads one to believe.

Since withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, the US has engaged in a campaign of crippling sanctions against Iran. As part of this “maximum pressure” policy the White House announced on 8 October that it was blacklisting the entire Iranian banking system.

Seen by many as an electoral stunt to counter Trump’s poor poll ratings, this action will lock Iran out of the global financial system and will have a chilling effect on Iran’s economy and its ability to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s bullish actions against Iran have not only seen the US withdraw from the JCPOA, but also the approval of military strikes against Iran’s proxies; and in January this year, the assassination of one of Iran’s most senior military commander, Major General Soleimani.

And we must not forget how Trump tweeted in June 2019 that the US military was “cocked & loaded to retaliate” against three Iranian military sites. Trump pulled back with only ten minutes to spare, according to the New York Times, “planes were in the air and ships were in position” before the word came through to stand down. The cliff edge has rarely been closer.

Bluntly put Trump’s provocations towards Iran have escalated tensions and risked full blown military conflict more than once during his term in office.

It now seems likely that a second Trump term would see a continuation of this machismo style of brinkmanship. Trump and his hawks are pushing for regime change in Iran, hoping to bring the country to heel.

But what if Trump loses in November?

It is clear that the hawks are worried. So much so that the latest round of sanctions were intended to be complicated enough to impede any attempts by a new administration to roll them back.

If Biden wins he has promised that things will be different: he will take steps to ensure that sanctions “do not hinder Iran’s fight against Covid”, and insists there is “ a smarter way to be tough on Iran.” Writing for CNN in September, Biden said he hoped to reinstate the nuclear deal, and will offer Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy”.

Yet Biden is no dove. He holds mainstream views of the Middle East and is a close friend of Israel. In the same CNN article Biden made it clear where his loyalties lay, saying “we will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region.”

Referencing the $38 billion package of military aid made available to Israel during his time as Vice President, Biden confirmed that “America will also work closely with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies.”

Biden and his team know it cannot simply reinstate the JCPOA wholesale, and some of his senior foreign policy advisors have stated that a Biden administration would not support ending sanctions or reinstating the JCPOA without major modifications.

In September Biden wrote, “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”

The words “starting point” and “addressing other issues” would have set alarm bells ringing in Tehran.

It appears Biden, like Trump, is hoping for a new Iran deal, something Iran has said it will not counter. Even if Iran were to cooperate, any new deal would require Congressional approval – no easy task – after all the original Obama deal met plenty of opposition from both sides of Congress.

But would Iran renegotiate? The latest sanctions unsurprisingly prompted a robust response from the Iranian government. Iran’s Foreign Minister accused the US of “conspiring to starve a population” and called the latest measures “a crime against humanity”. Iran’s UN Ambassador said the US was conducting “state terrorism” against Iran aimed at regime change.

Iranian hardliners, boosted by Trump’s aggressive stance, have publicly stated that it will make little difference who the next occupant of the White House is, claiming that US hostility will remain the same whoever wins in November. Add into the mix Iran’s own presidential election in June next year, and it is clear, any negotiations will be fraught and complicated.

Current US sanctions are far more entrenched and complex than they were in 2015 when Obama negotiated the JCPOA. Today, Iran would most likely demand a reversal of all sanctions, unacceptable to the US; and Washington would most likely seek to address Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities along side its nuclear capabilities, something Iran is unlikely to contemplate.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif confirmed last week that Tehran has no plans to renegotiate the nuclear deal and that Washington must return to the JCPOA “without conditions”. It was the US who reneged on the agreement, he argued, so it is up to the US to prove they can be trusted going forward. Zarif also said Iran would require compensation for damages caused by US sanctions.

In case the message was not clear enough Zarif emphasised that Iran would not “renegotiate what we already negotiated”.

Whoever holds the keys to the White House the future relationship with Iran looks set to be more continuity than change. A Biden presidency may be more predictable and less provocative than a second Trump term, but without a significant shake up in Congress and a shift in Biden’s view on the politics of the Middle East, today’s precarious relationship is set to continue.

Pressure for peace and diplomacy is unlikely to be coming from the White House any time soon; it will need to come from the anti-war movement, both here and in the US.

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