Can the United States and Iran Return to the Negotiating Table?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The incoming Biden administration has made it clear that it intends to reengage with Iran. Just this week US President-elect Joe Biden said his administration would seek to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran meets certain conditions. However, it is clear that whatever political will may exist on both the Iranian and US sides, the road ahead is likely to be treacherous. To begin with, the Trump administration has signaled its willingness to do its best in the interregnum to undermine any possible return of the two countries to the diplomatic table. Then there is the question of the upcoming presidential elections in Iran and the cool reception any results will receive in the various Arab capitals.

As a recent Press TV report indicates, Iranian leaders have shown that, even though they are predisposed to be open to a rapprochement with the Biden administration, they are still planning to play hardball over a possible new deal: “Speaking at a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, Rouhani said the incoming US administration would return to a situation in which rules are respected. ‘With the situation that has been brought about, we will in the future be moving from an atmosphere of threats created by this rogue [US] administration to one of opportunity’, he said. The president predicted that the situation of the country will improve in the future, but clarified, ‘Some think that when we speak of a better situation, we mean negotiations with America. That is, however, not the case’.”

That message was reiterated by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who, according to an Asharq Alawsat report, was also eager to stress that the Iranian government “would ‘automatically’ return to its nuclear commitments if US President-elect Joe Biden lifts sanctions. Tehran again meeting its commitments ‘can be done automatically and needs no conditions or even negotiations’…. Once in the White House, Biden could ‘lift all of these (sanctions) with three executive orders,’ Zarif argued…. ‘The next stage that will need negotiating is America’s return…, which is not a priority’, he noted, adding that ‘the first priority is America ending its law-breaking’. Zarif said that although outgoing US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA, he did not withdraw the country from the UN and thus must carry out the decisions of the UN Security Council.”

In an op-ed published by Albawaba and provocatively titled “Will Biden Stop Bullying Iran?” Massoumeh Torfeh warns that, in light of the events of the last four years, the United States should be prepared for negotiations that may prove to be even more difficult than during the Obama administration: “Tehran maintains its ‘policy doesn’t change with presidents’ and will drive a tougher bargain with US President-elect Joe Biden before resuming talks over its nuclear program. Many Iranians will quietly welcome Joe Biden’s victory as an avenue of possible relief from the crippling US sanctions and the maximum-pressure policy of incumbent President Donald Trump. A Biden presidency would mean more diplomacy and less bullying and erratic decisions, they hope. Yet, Iranians know well that the deeply rooted tensions in US-Iran relations will not go away with a mere change of president. President-elect Biden should also realize Iran is now a very different place [than] when Barack Obama left office.”

Editor-in-chief of the Independent Persian, Camelia Entekhabifard, provides a similar assessment in a recent op-ed published by Asharq Alawsat, in which she tries to temper any premature enthusiasm about a possible rapprochement between the two countries: “Iran’s aim — however trivial – is to succeed 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 is exhausted by soaring prices, unemployment and disease…. The fact of the matter is that the Islamic Republic would be too optimistic to believe that in his first six months of presidency, Mr. Biden would return to the nuclear agreement or create the same favorable situation for Iran that Barak Obama did. Realities have dramatically changed at each and 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.”

Still, as Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman points out, preparations are ongoing for a return to the negotiation table with US President-elect Biden’s advisers beginning to reach out to their Iranian counterparts, even though it is clear to everyone that “until the presidential elections in Iran, no substantial agreement can be achieved. The main objective during this phase is to reach an understanding with Tehran to freeze its ballistic missile development, end interventionist actions in the Middle East and halt its nuclear military activity. In return and once a new agreement signed, Washington will lift the latest sanctions put in place in 2018 by outgoing President Donald Trump. With the election of a new Iranian president, the U.S. will begin talks focusing on nuclear and regional issues with the intention of correcting any weaknesses in the 2015 agreement.”

The prospect of a thawing of relations between the United States and Iran has alarmed US allies in the region, who, as Arab News Majid Rafizadeh points out, believe that “the US rejoining the JCPOA would have serious repercussions for regional stability and peace… [and that] rejoining the nuclear deal will again alienate other countries in the Middle East and inevitably lead to a worsening of relations with traditional US allies. When the JCPOA was being negotiated, Iran’s neighbors were needlessly excluded, despite living on the country’s doorstep and experiencing the consequences of Iranian proxy action more acutely than any of the deal’s signatories…. The Iran nuclear deal was a political disaster. The US rejoining it would be a serious threat to regional peace and stability and would only embolden and empower the Iranian regime, its mercenaries and a network of militia and terror groups throughout the region.”

These misgivings are also evident in this Khaleej Times op-ed by Suneeti Ahuja Kohli, who, however, unlike Mr. Rafizadeh, acknowledges the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the current impasse between Iran and several Arab countries in the region: “Iran has been a great destabilizing force in the region, meddling in the domestic affairs of a number of countries and spreading chaos. Yet, a war with the Islamic Republic is not a solution. It needs to be dealt with diplomatically…. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by the Obama administration offered a start, as it paused the country’s charge towards a nuclear arsenal, but all in all it was not more than a moratorium period and didn’t offer long-term solutions…. Any new deal with Iran should be done in consultation with the Gulf states…. Perhaps the Biden administration could once again pursue the use of economic carrots for nuclear restraint. But this time, let it be a collaborative effort made with the US allies in the Middle East. There should be no room for any surprise element.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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