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Democratic Platform Promises a Biden Return to Iran Nuke Deal

But as always, the devil is in the details.

The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the European Union and Iran announce the framework of the Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program on April 2, 2015. (U.S. Department of State).

The Democratic party unveiled a platform for the national convention that would formally catapult Joe Biden to the race to the White House. They hope to do this, in part, on a foreign policy plank that largely hews to the “ending forever wars” mantra that was made popular by Democratic candidates Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders during the early debates.

That means specific foreign policy measures to end the U.S. assistance to the Saudis’ war in Yemen, and completing the full military withdrawal from Afghanistan started by Trump. And it calls for responsible reductions in the defense budget.

The biggest break with the Trump Administration’s current policies, however, is clearly with Iran, where the Democrats are rejecting the goal of U.S. “regime change” in the Islamic republic. 

As we know, Trump discarded a working multilateral nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama in favor of a “maximum pressure” campaign in pursuit of a “better deal” with Iran, or, alternatively, regime change in that country. 

This policy has proved to be a resounding failure: after the U.S. violated the agreement known as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) by throwing a barrage of sanctions on Tehran, Iran has resumed its enrichment activities beyond the limits of that agreement. Maximum pressure also failed to rein in Iran’s policies in the region, or topple the regime. 

Democrats in their document offer a fundamental course reversal. In addition to rejecting regime change in Iran, they emphasize renewed diplomatic  engagement at the expense of military adventurism and stress the importance of an urgent mutual return to the compliance with the JCPOA. 

These all are sensible positions. The devil, however, is always in the details.  

While the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA is commendable, the question is which way the Democrats intend to go to get there. The debate seems to be revolving between two possibilities: rejoin the JCPOA unconditionally, without further delay, or use the leverage supposedly gained by Trump’s pressure to extract more concessions from Iran. 

The latter option would entail not only getting Iran to roll back the progress it achieved in its nuclear program after it departed from some of its commitments under the JCPOA, but also in non-nuclear areas, such as Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities.

The language of the document is ambiguous enough to give cover to both possibilities. Yet it would have been preferable if the Democrats clearly stated that they would rejoin the JCPOA. 

This would be an ethical thing to do, as it was the U.S. who withdrew from the agreement that was delivering on its goal to close all pathways for Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb. By refusing to capitalize on Trump’s policies, it would also send the message to the world that the U.S. is a law-abiding nation, and that it would not seek any advantage arising from the violation of the law, in this case, the UNSCR 2231 which enshrined the JCPOA. That would restore the U.S. credibility. 

By showing that the consequences of the lawlessness can be reversed it would also deter future administrations from recklessly disregarding U.S. own commitments and international law. 

Rejoining the JCPOA is also the only way for the Democrats to convince Iran to return to the full compliance with the deal. Iranian officials repeatedly emphasized that the steps they took away from the JCPOA are reversible as long as other parties to the agreement fulfill their obligations. In light of the quandary that the European signatories— Britain, Germany, France—are in, trying to deliver on economic benefits now denied to Iran due to the U.S. pressure, the onus to reverse course is on the U.S. 

To return to strict compliance with the JCPOA, Iran demands not only that the U.S. does so first as a violating party, but also that it compensates Iran for the losses it incurred as a result of Trump’s sanctions. Demanding anything less than that has become politically toxic in Tehran—one only has to witness the recent grilling of the foreign minister Javad Zarif in the conservative-dominated parliament for supposedly going “soft” on U.S.

Engaging Iran in a lengthy diplomatic process with the aim of squeezing more concessions without frontloading the sanctions removal, would therefore not work. Contrary to the U.S.-centric worldview, Tehran is not desperate to cut a deal with Washington. Its recent overtures to Russia and China and openings with Turkey should be seen in this light. 

Diplomatic diversification, particularly in Eurasia, is a key element of Iran’s long-term strategy, and is shared across the political spectrum.  Absent credible economic relief, no faction in Iran, no matter how moderate or pragmatic, will see any incentive in engaging in new open-ended negotiations with U.S. 

A foreseeable deadlock would then eventually lead a Biden administration to face the same dilemma as previous American presidents, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump: launch military strikes to stop Iran’s nuclear program or try diplomacy. Assuming Biden will opt for the latter, to secure a deal he won’t be able to avoid offering Iran meaningful economic relief. By the time he’ll be ready to take that step, however, Iranian nuclear program will have advanced far more than it already did. This would be a particularly plausible prospect if a more hard-line government emerged in Iran after the presidential elections in 2021.

Thus, any strategy based on the assumption that the U.S. has to cash in more concessions from Iran prior to rejoining the JCPOA will backfire. In the process, it will claim a disproportionate amount of effort better spent on rebuilding America after four years of Trump and focusing on far more important foreign policy challenges, such as managing relations with China. It would also shatter the Democrats’ plans to rebalance relations with the Persian Gulf countries, including ending support for the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen. And it would further confirm to the European allies that the U.S. has become fundamentally untrustworthy, no matter the party in power. Rejoining the JCPOA and fully delivering on U.S. commitments would thus be a far better course of action. This would also provide a basis for follow-up talks on other issues of concern, like the regional tensions in the Middle East and Gulf.

The Democratic convention platform is an important step in the right direction. It now has to be developed with a set of coherent policy proposals to “call off a race to war with Iran”

Eldar Mamedov  has served as a political adviser in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) since 2009, and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, and Arabian Peninsula. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. He is a regular contributor to Responsible Statecraft.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

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