Iran-Biden Relations Fraying Before Fresh Nuclear Talks Can Begin

The Iranian regime appears to have survived President Donald Trump and his "maximum pressure" campaign, even if its leaders are still grappling with a collapsing economy, a rampant coronavirus pandemic, and simmering public discontent as the American commander in chief prepares to leave office.

Another four years of Trump would likely have been ruinous for Tehran. President-Elect Joe Biden's victory could yet hand Iran much-needed sanctions relief and ease American efforts to isolate the country.

But Biden's victory alone will not fully thaw U.S.-Iranian relations, and there is no guarantee that the two nations will be able to step away from the brink of conflict and revive the beleaguered Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

Iranian leaders have maintained a steady drumbeat of obstinate and threatening statements through the transition, during which time the Trump administration has expanded sanctions and assassins—reportedly sent by Israel—killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist. With a month of Trump's term to go, Iran may yet have to weather more sanctions, covert attacks or even military strikes.

Meanwhile, the challenges Biden will face are crystallizing. Iran is pushing ahead with its nuclear program, moving away from the JCPOA in retaliation to the killings of Fakhrizadeh and Major General Qassem Soleimani in January. Iran's leaders say they are still open to reviving the JCPOA, but are stressing that Biden will have to work for it.

President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday he was pleased Trump was leaving office, dismissing him as "the most lawless U.S. president" and a "terrorist"—the kind of rhetoric that has come to characterize Washington, D.C.-Tehran ties for the last four years.

But Rouhani added: "We are not overjoyed about Mr. Biden's arrival, but we are happy about Trump leaving," Reuters reported.

Some of Rouhani's hostility can be explained away as a negotiating ploy—Tehran won't want to appear too keen to make a deal with the incoming administration.

Rouhani—a moderate who staked his reputation and legacy on the JCPOA, and whose term ends this summer—is also having to defend against hard-liners within Iran, some of whom long vowed to undercut the nuclear accord signed with President Barack Obama.

A tough public line on the incoming administration and steps away from the JCPOA will go some way to placating his government's opponents.

Rouhani's comments are characteristic of the lukewarm regime response to Biden's victory, though leaders' remarks have been warmer on the subject of the JCPOA. Meanwhile, day-to-day machinations are exposing more fissures that could undermine future engagement.

Earlier this week, for example, two of Biden's top foreign policy aides—Antony Blinken who is nominated to be secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan who is nominated to be national security adviser—condemned what they called Iran's "horrifying" execution of a journalist convicted of promoting major anti-government protests in 2017.

Both men vowed to push back on this and other Iranian human rights abuses. Biden's vow to put human rights and democracy at the heart of his foreign policy could cause more friction with the authoritarian regime in Tehran.

Biden's tepid reaction to the Fakhrizadeh assassination will also have angered leaders in Tehran. The killing—which took place on a country road outside Tehran despite Fakhrizadeh's large security detail—was widely condemned by the international community, targeting as it did a civilian scientist.

Biden said it was "hard to tell" how much the killing would impact his efforts to revive the JCPOA, adding: "The bottom line is that we can't allow Iran to get nuclear weapons."

The Iranian parliament has already passed measures pushing the country's atomic agency to increase its production of enriched uranium and end international visits to its nuclear facilities.

On Tuesday, Iran's defense minister said the country would more than triple the budget of Fakhrizadeh's Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, tasked with nuclear research for the military.

Biden was also reserved about the Soleimani strike in January, though like fellow Democrats condemned it as "a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region." Still, Biden said Soleimani "deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes" and that the late commander "supported terror and sowed chaos."

Soleimani's daughter, Zainab, cited the statement in an interview with RT broadcast Wednesday. "There's no difference between Biden and Trump, they are the same guy," she said. "They are following the same policy, there's no difference between them. Trump ordered the killing of my father, but Biden supported that, so there's no difference."

Iran is also under fresh pressure over the disappearance and presumed death of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007. The Trump administration this week blamed Tehran for the first time, and introduced fresh sanctions against those believed to be responsible.

Elsewhere, Iran is flexing its muscles via proxies in Iraq and Yemen. Iran-backed militias in Iraq remain the most salient threat to U.S. interests there, with the embassy in Baghdad—which recently drew down staffing levels over security fears—the central target. Roadside bombs are also still a threat, and in recent months have been used to attack American supply convoys in the country.

In Yemen, the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels are increasing the rate and sophistication of attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and shipping, targeting vital facilities in Jeddah and other major cities. For all its airstrikes—plus U.S. logistic, arms and intelligence support—the Saudis have been unable to dislodge the Houthis from Yemen, where the war has created the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

Both Iraq and Yemen—as well as Iranian presence in other regional nations like Syria and Lebanon—will be leverage for Tehran in future negotiations. Biden has promised to end so-called "forever wars," but his foreign policy will likely keep American troops engaged in the Middle East close to Iranian personnel and allies.

There are encouraging signs for JCPOA proponents, and not only the pro-deal statements coming from key regime figures. This week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the revival of bills to bring Iran into compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an international watchdog tracking money laundering and terrorist funding.

Iran's refusal to comply with FATF regulations has undermined its economy, making it difficult to do business with foreign banks. American officials have long cited Iran's refusal to agree to FATF rules as proof of its strategy to support terrorism against its rivals.

Passing the measures won't stop these allegations—or Tehran's funding for regional militant groups—but will be something of a signal of Tehran's intent to re-engage with the U.S. and its allies. The step could also be interpreted, however, as a sign that American sanctions are truly biting in Iran, forcing its leaders to capitulate on the FATF issue in the hope of increasing cash flow.

Biden and his team will have to jump many significant hurdles, but the noises from Tehran on the JCPOA remain largely positive. Rouhani said Tuesday that if Biden "returns to the situation as it was in 2017, then so will we."

Rouhani added that if a JCPOA meeting with Biden "were possible this hour, I wouldn't postpone it to the next."

Khamenei said in a speech Wednesday there should be no delay in lifting sanctions on Iran, "not even an hour." He added: "If sanctions can be lifted in a wise and honorable manner, then it should be done."

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Students of Iran's Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty