On the virtual campaign trail, US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to rein in tension with Iran with an approach he argued would be instantly distinguishable from Donald Trump’s: Mr Biden’s would be the “smart way”.
The quip formed part of his argument that Mr Trump’s hardline approach — withdrawing from an Obama-era nuclear accord between Iran and global powers, piling on punitive sanctions and coming close to war — had momentously backfired, putting Tehran just “a few months” away from having enough nuclear material for a bomb.
Mr Biden has said he will return to the multi-party 2015 deal that limited Iran’s nuclear programme, as long as Iran also returns to strict compliance, as a “starting point for follow-on negotiations”. But while the president-elect has promised to offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy”, the task is fraught with complexity and Biden advisers are playing down expectations of a deal.
While analysts say the multi-party deal could be resurrected, it is a less straightforward undertaking than rejoining other multilateral forums ditched by Mr Trump, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.
If the US raises issues such as Iranian ballistic missiles or its support for militias in the region — which did not feature as part of the original deal — or Tehran demands compensation for US withdrawal from the accord, then the talks immediately become more difficult.
“As soon as you start opening anything up . . . you complicate it and by definition then you’re in a longer negotiation and you run the risk of during that period of seeing things go sideways,” said Robert Malley, former Middle East director at the Obama White House who leads the International Crisis Group.
While Mr Biden is unlikely to agree to pay Iran compensation or immediately remove all Trump-era sanctions, observers say there are some significant moves he could make quickly. These include reinstating sanctions waivers for Iranian oil exports and removing the designation of the country’s central bank as a financer of terrorism.
Since Mr Trump abandoned the deal two years ago, the three European signatories — France, Germany and the UK — have tried to keep it alive and Mr Biden’s advisers have been clear they will work out a joint approach with European powers over the US return to the JCPOA, the initials by which the deal is known.
The Biden administration “at a minimum” could remove obstacles placed by the Trump administration to European efforts to maintain economic benefits granted under the deal, said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. These include existing or proposed mechanisms to offer credit lines to Tehran backed by Iran’s crude production, and trade finance for deals between European and Iranian companies.
Talks on an expanded deal to cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional behaviour might be a way off. Iran has increased its nuclear activity in response to Mr Trump’s punitive measures, but Tehran insist it is committed to the deal. Analysts say it is possible to envisage “compliance for compliance”, “calm for calm” or “freeze for freeze” measures, in which both sides move back to the terms of the deal over time and avoid confrontational behaviour in the Middle East.
“People who are around Biden and will be part of his foreign policy team are personally invested in the success of the JCPOA, having had a hand in it,” Ms Geranmayeh said. “If you accept that the strategic logic of the nuclear deal is still valid and that there are interests for both sides to get it back on track, then all the problems are manageable.”
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings Institution, said she thought there would be an early diplomatic push to get both sides back into “greater compliance” with their obligations, “but not necessarily a full-fledged, full-footed, jump back into the JCPOA entirely”. “An interim nuclear deal” might be on the cards, she said.
Much could hang on who Mr Biden appoints as his secretary of state. While Susan Rice, a former US ambassador to the UN, is among those who would potentially seek a quick return to the deal, former deputy secretary of state Bill Burns and US senator Chris Coons — who have also been tipped for the role — might seek something less ambitious, such as reducing US sanctions in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear activity. A third group of Democrats would push to strengthen the deal by seeking to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional behaviour.
Iran has previously said that it would not compromise over its strategic regional and military policies, notably its support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the missile programme. “This [nuclear] agreement is done and sealed off. Iran has repeatedly said that the nuclear accord belongs to the past and cannot reopen for new considerations,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, on Monday.
Mr Khatibzadeh also indicated that Iran could seek compensation, raising concerns that the incoming US administration’s clear commitment to rejoining the deal has given Iran an advantage. “It makes no sense to cede leverage prematurely and then expect to persuade them to change their policies,” an informal Iran adviser to Mr Biden told the Financial Times.
For now, Mr Biden’s victory has emboldened Iran’s pro-reform politicians, who have long been advocates of detente in foreign policy, ahead of presidential elections expected in June next year. While Iran’s powerful hardliners do not oppose the resumption of talks, they hope to delay negotiations to avoid any electoral windfall for reformists.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a reform-minded professor of politics at Tehran University, said he expected Iran’s hardliners to win the presidency and then enter into negotiations by showing “heroic flexibility” — a term they used in 2013 to justify nuclear negotiations to their radical supporters.
“The victory of Biden will not lead to the victory of reformist or moderate forces,” he said. Iran’s hardliners “cannot afford to give up their anti-US stances . . . But there is a prospect for negotiations,” he said.
Ultimately, given the long list of domestic priorities, Mr Biden’s team has little capacity for complex foreign policy initiatives. And Mr Trump may yet use his remaining weeks in office to introduce more sanctions — his hawkish envoy Elliott Abrams is in the region this week to discuss Iran.
But Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, who the Trump administration put on its long sanctions list last month, shrugged off that possibility.
“Nothing [significant] remains to go on the sanctions list,” he said in an energy conference in Tehran on Monday. “Unless they put sanctions on our colleagues in the service sector [drivers, janitors, cleaners] and those who work in the kitchen . . . We are neither scared of their sanctions nor think they have any impact on our work.”