Under President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran never enriched uranium to levels that violated the nuclear deal. Tehran agreed in August to let IAEA inspectors visit two previously, inaccessible nuclear sites.
Now, with the election of Joe Biden as US president, who signaled his intent to end Trump’s pressure, Tehran has started enriching uranium to the prohibited level of 20 percent. It has seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker, and jailed an Iranian-American on charges of spying.
While the behavior of the Iranian regime seems counterintuitive, Tehran knows exactly what it is doing. When faced with a tough American administration, Iran hunkers down and remains on its best behavior. When faced with a US administration that looks to remove sanctions through negotiation, Tehran becomes aggressive.
Iran’s seemingly inexplicable behavior is governed by rules of negotiation. Tehran has measured Biden’s dovish administration, to reverse Trump’s foreign policy as the cornerstone of its strategy.
As part of Biden’s Middle East policy, differentiating between Iran’s nuclear program and its destabilizing activity is key. This issue encompasses Tehran’s development of missiles, and sponsorship of global terrorism, including its support of militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The Biden administration will emphasize Iran’s nuclear threat to global security, doing so before Iran has raised its uranium enrichment to alarming levels.
Pro-Iran voices have also tried to accelerate the deal by threatening Biden that the window for restoration is closing. With Iranian elections, scheduled for June, the current “moderate” government might be replaced with a “radical” one is argued.
The pro-Tehran voices underestimated the devastation that Trump’s “maximum pressure” inflicted on Iran. With the restoration of unilateral US sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, in May 2018, its economy has been in free fall.
To support the narrative of inflated Iranian nuclear danger, and the existing inconsequential US sanctions, Tehran is aware that under Biden its belligerency will go unchecked.
According to news reports, talks have already started between Tehran and Washington
In an attempt to suspend US sanctions, Tehran will place its level and stock of enriched uranium to pre-May 2018 quantities. For good measure, and confidence-building, Iran will release Western hostages, just as it did before signing the nuclear deal in October 2015.
By increasing hostility, Tehran not only inflates its nuclear danger to make it the only pressing issue worth negotiating, it helps their own propaganda. The day that Iran knew that Biden was bound to succeed Trump, it pushed the story that Trump could never break them; they had remained defiant in the face of US aggression.
If there are any lessons from Trump’s policy on Iran, it is that the nuclear deal never defused the threat; it only froze it. Even then, the freeze remained incumbent on the West giving Tehran what it wanted.
The nuclear treaty with Iran was dependent on a balance of power. When America flexed its muscles, through sanctions and military activity, including the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Tehran retreated.
As Washington reverses its policy of aggression to negotiation, Tehran is stepping forward.
The Biden team has so far promised to update the nuclear deal with Iran to include restrictions on Iran’s missile program. Iranian officials, however, have responded saying that missiles are not up for negotiations.
Biden’s policy to curb the missile program does not look promising, as the crucial policy for Washington is removing sanctions in return for a nuclear deal, and the exchange of prisoners.
If Iran’s missile program isn’t reigned in, Washington will not succeed in curbing Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and militias. Biden has promised nothing about this. For the coming four years, the world should expect a bumpy ride on Iran.