During the past year, while many of us have been confined to our homes, our attention has been transfixed on the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is extremely important owing to the existential threat that the crisis poses, we have turned Nelson’s eye to several geopolitical events. Events that have the ability to create significant ripples, within a highly vulnerable political environment. Iran has been the center of policy formulation in the western world, ever since the Trump administration decided to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). While the world as a whole has faced difficulties of unimaginable proportion in 2020, Iran, in particular, has had an extremely tumultuous year. A year that started with the killing of Qasem Soleimani and a crippling economy. The recent blows to the Islamic regime have been the killing of the leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabad. With the events in the past, we invariable question the faith of the Iranian Regime, and what its position on the world stage is going to be, as President-Elect Joe Biden moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Iranian regime has considered the United States to be a staunch adversary since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The killing of Fakhrizadeh was the last nail in the coffin. The Iranian leadership faces a perilous conundrum in a precarious environment.
With the recent election of Joe Biden as the forty-sixth president of the United States and Hassan Rouhani’s term drawing to an end in 2021, we must shed light on what the future holds for the adversaries. Recent months have recorded a tremendous increase in hostilities between the two countries. Within this highly complex geopolitical web, Iran though cornered has not lost all hope. There are two significant advantages that the regime enjoys in the region. There exists a general understanding in the Gulf that U.S allies, which includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, do not have the capacity to engage with Iran in a full out conflagration. The second advantage that Iran enjoys is its regional proxy networks.
The Iranian regime has aimed at executing a one state, two systems formula for conflict-ridden states. Through this strategy, Tehran does not wish to rebuild institutions in accordance with international convention, instead chooses an approach centred around a host of armed non-state actors, that help the regime establish networks and institutions that parallel national institutions. The presence of weak national institutions provides the regime with the opportunity to subjugate governing structures and political systems. With the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency of the United States, there is renewed optimism that real diplomacy and engagement will dictate relations between the US and Iran, as compared to wishful demands for Iran’s total capitulation.
The last four years under the Trump Administration has marked the most contentious period in US-Iran history since the 1980s. The fragile state of relations between the US and Iran is clear by the fact that the two countries have been on the brink of war twice. The first being in the aftermath of Iran shooting down a US drone in 2019 and the second being the start of 2020 when the US orchestrated the assassination of the Quads Force commander Qasem Soleimani. The situation under the Biden administration might be expected to take a veritable turn, as there could be a substantial reduction in tensions by easing sanctions on the Iranian economy, and a return to an approach involving multilateral diplomacy that initially led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. But the question still remains, if the Biden White House can draw its European Allies-Britain, France, and Germany to rebuild a coalition, of a similar nature as seen during the Obama era.
However, there exist several hurdles in this entire process of renewed diplomacy that the Biden administration may or may not adopt towards the Iranian Regime. The first such obstacle that the United States faces is the lack of time. Iran is due to have its presidential elections in 2021, which would in all probability see Housan Rouhani step down. The Presidential election may act as a thorn for the United States government as there has been a substantial weakening of the pragmatic forces within the Iranian polity. According to Iranian-American scholar Mohamad Tabbar, Iranian politics has undergone a tectonic shift, which has resulted in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps assuming the leadership of this change. The Iranian military is also preparing for the upcoming presidential elections and a veteran of the IRGC is likely to take over the executive branch. These perceived changes within the Iranian political structure gives the Biden White House, approximately six months to deal with and straighten out US’s relations with Iran. The Biden Administration is predicted to be faced with surmounting pressure from its allies in the Middle-Eastern Region, this opposition to US engagement with Iran is a result of the growing concern that this would lead to a broader rapprochement between Iran and the US, which could diminish the importance of American allies to Washington D.C.
Another significant challenge faced by the Biden administration will be shoring up support for the JCPOA within the country itself. The JCPOA has always faced tough criticism in Congress, members of the two houses never warmed up to the idea of an agreement with the Iranian regime. The biggest point of contention for parties and other actors in American politics has been varying expectations. Many believe that Iran should not be permitted to have a nuclear civil program, while many are of the opinion that the country needs to change its behaviour in the regime before a revised deal can be entered. Some believed that the provisions of the original JCPOA focused solely on the short term, and felt that it was necessary to tie down Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the long run. Getting Congressional support for a revised JCPOA is not going to be a cakewalk. More importantly, entering into a revised agreement with Iran, Biden will have to ensure that both Iran and the United States will be able to uphold the provisions without any margin of error.
Lastly, American relations with Iran rely a great deal on the other parties that were originally a part of the JCPOA. This includes the “P=5+1”, that is Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. Since the P-5 and Germany are all signatories to the JCPOA, the deal belongs to all of them. This essentially means that it is vital the United States can get each and every member on board with the revised provisions of a new agreement with Iran. However, this process of gaining support from European partners might be significantly more strenuous as compared to the last time, the countries agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This is mainly a result of a series of changes on the geopolitical stage. The U.K has now left the European Union, with the achievement of a trade deal. The Russians on the other hand have gotten more assertive. Whereas China seems to be at loggerheads with the Americans over its increasing presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Having assessed the current situation, it is evident that Iranians are relieved to have survived the last four years under Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign”, and there exists a glimmer of hope that Biden’s election represents the opening of a new chapter. This, however, does not mean that Iran will be ready to compromise on America’s insistence. The regime will expect a revived JCPOA that recognizes the economic damage that has been caused over the past four years. There seems to be appearing a rift between the Iranian moderates and the hardliners. Amidst this confusion, it would be interesting to see how an agreement, if there is one, influences the Iranian Presidential elections. Moreover, in the event of a failure to achieve an agreement before the 2021 election, it would be difficult to ascertain the effect this might have on the two countries, and how the Biden White House would handle the Iranian Regime and what would be future of US-Iran relations.