At face value, the upcoming US election presents a choice between two Iran strategies. If President Donald Trump is reelected for a second term, he will maintain “maximum pressure” on Iran. In contrast, his Democratic challenger Joe Biden has hinted that he will suspend US sanctions and rejoin the nuclear deal. This, however, is only election talk. Reality will prove different.
If Trump wins reelection, Iran will be forced to return to the negotiating table, and resume from where it broke off in 2017. As Iran’s economy continues its bottomless free fall, Tehran cannot afford four more years of Trump’s pressure, and will certainly negotiate. Before the US reinstated its sanctions, it gave the European powers a chance to convince Tehran to make all sunset clauses in the nuclear deal permanent. The deal was designed with various restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity that expire in five, eight, 10, and 25 years from its date of adoption.
When all the clauses of the nuclear deal with Iran expire in 2040, Iran will have the freedom to enrich unlimited amounts of uranium to unspecified levels. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) protocol will therefore become the only guarantee that Iran will not make a nuclear bomb.
After talks with the Europeans, Iran, underestimated the power of US sanctions, and believed that if Europe, Russia and China stayed in the deal, Tehran would be able to circumvent US pressure. But Tehran was wrong. America’s sanctions were more powerful than even Washington expected, and so Iran moved to Plan B: Wait out Trump. Should Trump be reelected, Iran would most probably agree to making sunset clauses permanent, that is if Washington agrees to put its 2017 offer back on the table.
Iran’s Plan B is premised on the belief that once Biden becomes president, he will reverse Trump’s sanctions and simply rejoin the nuclear deal. But this will prove easier said than done.
By the time Biden becomes president in January 2021, there will remain two years until the world agrees to Iran replacing its first generation centrifuges with newer ones, per the deal. Biden will have to convince America that Iran can be trusted with centrifuges that can enrich uranium faster, and thus shorten the time required to make a bomb, should Tehran ever decide to do so.
However, the past few years have proved that Iran cannot be trusted. Even the Europeans, with Russia and China, expressed dismay that Iran has been violating its commitments under the nuclear deal, as it accelerated its enrichment and increased its stock of higher grade uranium.
Iran has also shown that it considers its ratification of the NPT protocol as open to political bargaining. Should Iran decide to, it can just scrap its commitment to the NPT and make a bomb, the same way North Korea trashed the Additional Protocol over a decade ago.
When former president Barack Obama threw his weight behind the nuclear deal with Iran, he reasoned that Tehran is a rational player and has good intentions, and that only if the world can break the cycle of mistrust with Iran, all disagreements can be solved.
A novice in foreign affairs, Obama seemed unaware that Iran never seeks solutions, but always keeps issues unresolved because it ensures Tehran remains globally relevant and gives the regime the ability to extort and blackmail the world.
The past three years since Trump has reinstated US sanctions on Iran have shown the world, and most importantly Biden, how Iran perceives its nuclear program. Despite Tehran’s official rhetoric, the regime has never been interested in producing nuclear power, but instead seeks to acquire a nuclear bomb. For the regime, only a nuclear bomb will give it global immunity and ensure its survival for eternity.
Over the past few years, Trump has slammed Iran with dozens of sanctions not directly related to the Iranian nuclear program, but instead based on Iran’s support for terrorism and its destabilizing regional behavior. Even Obama left Iranian sponsor of terrorism outside the nuclear deal, and was hoping that the deal will restore Iran to global normalcy and make the mullahs abandon their destabilizing activities.
Before the deal and Trump’s eventual withdrawal, Obama’s hypothesis had not been tested. But five years later, Washington and the world now know that no amount of nuclear deals with Iran will result in making the mullahs behave like a normal peaceful state.
Unlike how Obama appealed to Congress to give the deal with Iran a chance, Biden will not be able to pretend that the deal had produced any positive results. For Biden to rejoin the deal, he will have to climb a steeper hill, and his promise to rejoin the deal might prove to be mere election talk.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is an Iraqi-Lebanese columnist and writer. He is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. He tweets @hahussain.