Biden’s Room for Manoeuvre to Revive the Iran Nuclear Deal is Limited

Despite European Efforts to Salvage the JCPOA, the President Elect Faces a Complicated Web of Diplomacy 

On US President-elect Joe Biden’s lenghthy to do list is a pledge to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), - one of the signature, if hotly debated, achievements of Donald Trump's predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama.  
 
Since withdrawing from the agreement in 2018, the Trump administration’ has been doing his utmost to demolish it. However, the other parties to the 2015 pact—especially Britain, France, and Germany (the so-called E3), as well as the European Union (EU)—have kept the JCPOA alive with the hope of bridging the diplomatic gap until Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.  At talks in Berlin this week, European politicians outlined plans to secure an agreement from Tehran to reduce Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile size to below the limit allowed under the deal. The three nations are hoping Tehran can reach an agreement under which the US would lift its crippling sanctions in return for Iran ending its non-compliance with the 2015 agreement constraining its nuclear activities.
 
But after three years of “maximum pressure” and rapidly deteriorating in U.S.-Iran relations, that may be a lot harder than it sounds.
 
BIDEN’S ROOM FOR MANOEUVER IS LIMITED
 
The window for rolling back Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program during the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign in exchange for Iran’s full return to the deal’s nuclear limits is short and 
 
Firstly, Iran is due to hold presidential elections in June 2021, in which “hard hardliners,” as former lead U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman calls them, are likely to prevail, and in which Iran’s current second-term, relatively pro-engagement president Hassan Rouhani cannot run again. If Iran's next president is more conservative and more skeptical of international engagement, this could doom any chance of breathing life into the deal. Therefore, any diplomatic effort will have to move swiftly during Biden's first few months in office.
 
Secondly, Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) has grown to twelve times the JCPOA’s 300 kilogram limit, according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. It had also started enriching uranium to higher purity than the 3.67% allowed under the deal.  Low-enriched uranium is used for many civilian nuclear-related purposes - but at its highest state of purification (which Iran is nowhere near, nor known to be pursuing) it can be used in a nuclear bomb, hence the concern. Nuclear experts say that Iran's "breakout time" to secure enough weapons-grade material for an atomic bomb has dropped from 12 months when the agreement came into force to about three to four months.
 
Thirdly, the Biden administration would have to decide whether it would lift other sanctions that were imposed by Trump after the agreement came into effect, including those that targeted Iran's central bank. Many of the sanctions are not related to Iran's nuclear activity but refer to ballistic missiles, human rights and Iran's support for proxy forces in the region like Hezbollah and Hamas.
 
Fourthly, officials say the removal of sanctions won't be enough. The Iranian foreign minister. Javad Zarif, last week suggested Iran might need guarantees before letting the US rejoin the old JCPOA. Iran expects to be compensated for two-and-a-half years of crippling economic damage. Iran’s economy has contracted on average 6% each year since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the multicountry deal, the country's currency has plunged in value, inflation is rampant and its oil exports — Iran's main source of revenue — have dropped dramatically.
 
Fifthly, Support for the JCPOA in the US has largely broken along partisan lines, with Republicans mostly opposed.  The results of Georgia's two Senate run-offs in January will determine the balance of power in Washington and, possibly, the incoming administration's freedom to act. Even in London, Paris and Berlin, there's a recognition that the world has moved on and that a simple return to the original deal is unlikely.  
 
Moreover, the fact that some of the regional states which opposed the JCPOA - Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain - have recently signed normalisation agreements sponsored and heavily promoted by the Trump administration will make their mutual interests much harder to ignore.  "If we're going to negotiate the security of our part of the world, we should be there," the UAE's ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, told the audience at a recent seminar organised by Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.  The ambassador's determination was echoed by his Israeli interlocutor, the institute's director, Amos Yadlin. "Israel also wants to be at the table," Mr Yadlin said, "with our allies in the Middle East." For his part, Saudi Arabia's King Salman has called for "a decisive stance from the international community against Iran".  Reviving the JCPOA while simultaneously accommodating the views and interests of those who view Iran as their biggest threat to their national and regional security represents a complicated web of diplomacy for Joe Biden.