Iran Sends Mixed Signals About Nuclear Deal Ahead of Joe Biden Inauguration

The Iran nuclear deal is set to be one of President-Elect Joe Biden's key foreign policy issues once he takes office this week. The new commander in chief is keen to reopen dialogue with Tehran and revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after four years of simmering bilateral conflict under President Donald Trump.

Biden was vice president to President Barack Obama when he signed the landmark agreement in 2015, lifting international sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and vowed a tougher replacement, but his "maximum pressure" policy of sanctions, military posturing, assassination and strikes on Iranian allies has failed to produce a new accord. Iran has meanwhile moved further and further from JCPOA terms, expanding its stock of enriched uranium and moving closer to a nuclear weapon.

Biden and the senior members of his foreign policy team—all of who are on record as strongly supporting the deal—are expected to quickly reach out to Tehran, though regime spokesperson Ali Rabiyee said on Tuesday that Iranian officials have had no contact with the incoming administration.

The Iranian government, led by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, has been open about wanting to revive the JCPOA, though Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top military commanders have been more combative and vowed to prevail regardless of whether Biden pursues a detente.

Rabiyee told reporters on Tuesday that the government's "focus now is on the full revival of the nuclear deal by all parties to the agreement," the state-run Fars News Agency reported. "We expect the new U.S. administration to focus on gaining Iran's trust through the full and immediate implementation of all its undertakings," he added.

The failure of the JCPOA has left more-conservative elements within Iran skeptical of further engagement with the U.S. Years of sanctions have left the country's economy reeling, particularly as the government struggled to overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

Conservative candidates performed strongly in last year's parliamentary elections, and this summer's presidential race is widely expected to hand power to a hard-line candidate, perhaps even one from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Rouhani's team must balance its desire for a return to the JCPOA with this domestic reality. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested Tuesday that Tehran is "not in a hurry" to repair ties with Biden, even though the country is still struggling badly under the combined pressures of coronavirus and American sanctions.

Zarif added that the JCPOA could be resurrected "if the United States fulfills its commitments and lifts sanctions," the Mehr News Agency reported. Zarif, known for his goading statements directed at Trump and key officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has declared victory over the president's "maximum pressure" campaign.

But within parliament, Zarif struck a more defensive tone. Conservative lawmakers censured the foreign minister for his apparent willingness to negotiate with the U.S., noting it has been only weeks since the first anniversary of the American assassination of top commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Defending himself, Zarif framed talks with the new administration as part of his job. "I negotiated even with Saddam," the minister said, referring to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who waged a brutal war against Iran in the 1980s. "Do you think I liked negotiating with Saddam? Do you think I enjoyed sitting before Saddam? No, it is my job."

The Trump administration and Iran have maintained a steady drumbeat of military posturing and threats even as the former prepares to leave office. The Iranian armed forces have held several large military exercises over recent weeks, showing off their most advanced technology including ballistic missiles, the continued development of which has long been a bugbear for the U.S. and its regional allies.

IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami told reporters Tuesday his service would not hesitate to act. "Our fingers are on the trigger on behalf of the great Iranian nation," he said, according to the Tasnim News Agency.

Iran man by US embassy mural Tehran
An Iranian man wearing a protective mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, walks past a mural painted on the outer walls of the former U.S. Embassy in the capital Tehran, on December 30, 2020. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty