In nearly 60 days from now, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the new President of the United States — that is if President Trump eventually concedes — and in nearly six months’ time Iran will have its presidential election, due to be held in June 2021.
Today, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, who foresee the return of the Democrats they had been acquainted with to the White House, found the opportunity – in the short run - to brush aside rival groups in the Iranian political arena.
Biden has already signalled the possibility of returning to the nuclear agreement, but contrary to Iran’s wish, he has shown no indication of removing the sanctions that are already in place.
Zarif is pinning his hopes on his friendship with former US officials in Barak Obama’s administration to undo the current paralysing situation in Iran. It was the time when the media referred to the US and Iranian foreign ministers by their first names, “Jack” and “Javad”; when Joe Biden was the vice president.
The world in which the nuclear accord or the ‘JCPOA’ was signed with Iran in 2015, was a very different world from today. Now, looking at regional and international developments, Iran and the United States, along with Iran’s neighbours are in totally different positions compared to those under Obama’s presidency. Rouhani had managed to conclude the nuclear agreement with the West at the end of the very first round of his presidency.
The popularity Rouhani and his team, including FM Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araqchi, enjoyed both inside Iran and internationally raised hopes at the time that with the formal signing of the JCPOA and the reduction in tensions, Iran would go back to the bosom of the international community, and that Iranians would at last be able to enjoy peace and prosperity after thirty years of the Islamic Revolution.
However, the political and social developments that followed the JCPOA in Iran removed all the affinity reformists had with the system and its affiliates, Rouhani and Zarif included.
Violent suppression of the uprising by residents of the city of Mashhad in December 2017 turned into nationwide protests. The position Rouhani took against people who complained about the soaring prices, and the reduction in their purchasing power created such a gap between the people and the government that even Trump’s paralysing sanctions and his maximum pressure were dwarfed as a cause to forge people’s solidarity with the government and the governing system as a whole.
The killing of hundreds of people in November last year who demonstrated against the rise in the price of petrol, and Rouhani’s approach to their protests equally disgruntled Iranians with the rulers of the country. Today, Rouhani’s government in its last six months, has neither the prestige and the popularity it gained in 2015 among Iranians and the international community nor the credibility and legitimacy on the basis of which it attempts to open negotiations with the US.
On the other hand, the more the US exerted its maximum pressure on Iran, the more the Islamic Republic compensated for it by attacking it neighbours. Iran’s threats and attacks against tankers in the Persian Gulf and missile attacks by its proxy Houthis against Saudi Aramco oil facilities that according to UN experts had Iranian origins, not only added to the existing tensions but also intensified the distrust and frustration of Iran’s neighbouring countries.
Today, the countries of the region have extended their hand of friendship to Israel. Whether Trump stays in the White House or not, there will no longer be any obstacles in the way of such regional friendships, and Biden will support peace in the Middle East and friendship between Israel and Arabs.
Far from Iran’s interest in opening negotiations with the US over the nuclear agreement, for the President elect there are more pressing matters to attend to than the fate of the JCPOA. Biden should, at the commencement of his office, concentrate on the two most important national issues for Americans: the COVID-19 pandemic and the US economy.
Therefore, in the six months left of Rouhani’s government, neither the United States has the time to negotiate with Iran nor such negotiations could be organised in a hurry for Zarif and Rouhani’s government.
Equally, Mr. Biden is well aware of the shortcomings within the nuclear agreement’s body; shortcomings that have led to its failure and ultimately necessitated a new round of negotiations with Iran and Western partners to include other issues of concern.
Any such negotiation will include Iran’s interference in regional affairs, with its missile programme added to the agenda of the current agreement.
Iran’s aim is to succeed — however trivial — in removing some of the sanctions in order to alleviate — however short-term — the huge wave of people’s dissatisfaction, and prevent the possibility of an uprising by people whose patience has been exhausted by soaring prices, unemployment, and disease.
Apart from economic sanctions, there are similar sanctions over the question of human rights, and terrorism; the removal of which requires not only presidential order but also the vote of the Congress.
The fact of the matter is that the Islamic Republic would be too optimistic to believe that in his first six months of presidency, Biden would return to the nuclear agreement or create the same favourable situation for Iran that Obama did.
Realities have dramatically changed at every level in the United States, Iran, the Middle East, and the world over the past five years. The prevailing situation requires different negotiations, and different perspectives.