The upcoming US presidential elections in November will likely determine whether the Iran nuclear deal survives. If Donald Trump wins re-election, Iran is likely to quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and alter its nuclear doctrine to give it more leverage in any future negotiations. If Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is elected, both Iran and the United States could move towards reviving the JCPOA, but Iran will remain reluctant to expand its terms.
An immediate threat to the JCPOA lies in the issue of whether or not to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in October under UN Security Council Resolution 2231. It is very likely that Iran will react severely should the US succeed in extending the embargo through a new resolution or through a controversial “snapback” of previous UN sanctions. Tehran has threatened to pull out of the nuclear agreement and even the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the arms embargo is extended.
Whatever the outcome of the US presidential elections, there is broad consensus within the Iranian government that Tehran will not renegotiate the terms of the JCPOA because it believes that the nuclear program file was closed after it signed the agreement and that including other aspects, such as the country’s ballistic missile program and regional influence, should not be added. Reopening the subject now would be seen as a sign of Iranian weakness.
On August 10, President Trump promised a new nuclear deal with Iran “within four weeks” if he is re-elected in November. Tehran responded that they would welcome the negotiations if Trump is serious about making up for past mistakes and willing to return to the JCPOA and lift all sanctions.
With that in mind, Trump believes that Iran is just waiting for the results of the US election. He believes that due to its difficult economic situation, Tehran will make a deal no matter who wins. It is clear that this view is completely wrong, as Iran has refused to negotiate on Trump’s terms over the past two years and under the most severe sanctions in history. Trump has no understanding of the decision-making process in Iranian foreign policy.
Should Trump win, there is broad consensus in the Iranian establishment to pursue a continued policy of maximum resistance to counter the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. No one in Tehran is eager to hold talks on the unrealistic demands that the Trump administration has proposed. Like the failed experience of the maximum pressure campaign, Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were fruitless. Instead, Iran will likely change its nuclear doctrine to strengthen the deterrence aspects of its nuclear program and increase its influence in the Middle East, as that would provide it with more options in a possible military confrontation.
If Trump is re-elected a second term, Iran will likely revive tools that it used to achieve the JCPOA, such as enriching uranium to 20 percent, reducing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, suspending voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol, and resuming uranium enrichment at the underground site of the Fordow nuclear facility in order to lay the ground for “symmetrical negotiations”. While Iran has taken some steps out of the JCPOA since the US withdrew, it has not gone this far.
Some analysts in Tehran believe that deterrence for American policymakers consists of two main options: either allow Iran to continue on its path and become nuclear or launch a war against Iran to stop it. Under such circumstances, analysts believe that the United States will choose a third option—that of symmetrical negotiations, which will offer significant concessions to once again curb Iran’s nuclear progress.
Most analysts believe that the United States is highly unlikely to go to war with Iran because this would jeopardize the US pivot to Asia favored by both Republicans and Democrats. A military conflict with Iran would bog the US down in the Middle East for at least another decade. Furthermore, given the presence of powerful pro-Iran proxies in some of the surrounding region, a war against Tehran would also involve US allies and have incredibly damaging and unforeseen consequences. Hence, even most US allies do not support a war with Tehran.
In preparation for this scenario, Iran would likely emphasize its willingness to use missiles and to close off the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a war. Additionally, Tehran is constructing a one thousand kilometer-long oil pipeline from Goreh to Jask in the Persian Gulf that would enable Iran to continue to export oil and bypass the strategic waterway. Iranian officials predict that the project will come online within a year. Iran’s announcement that it would expand underground missile sites across its southern maritime borders on the Persian Gulf, as well as execute military drills—such as the recent sinking of a giant mock US aircraft carrier—are also parts of its deterrence plan.
Iranian policymakers believe these aspects of deterrence would persuade the United States to enter balanced negotiations with Tehran. However, some incidents affecting Iran’s military and nuclear infrastructure—such as the recent explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility and an incident at the Parchin military site near the capital—have suggested that Israel and the United States are taking preemptive steps to disrupt Iran’s plans to strengthen its deterrence tools.
If Biden is elected and sets preconditions for returning to the JCPOA—including Tehran’s missile program and questions over its regional influence—Iran will refuse and seek to operationalize its deterrence strategy. However, many analysts in Iran believe that with Biden in office, he, like Barack Obama, will pursue a balance of power strategy between Iran, its Arab neighbors, and Israel.
Biden’s foreign policy team appears united in calling for a return to the JCPOA, although several advisors have talked of the need for a broader follow-on agreement that includes ballistic missiles and ending regional conflicts, among other things.
It is noteworthy that even if Biden wins, he will only have a short window to deal with Iran while President Hassan Rouhani remains in office, as the next Iranian presidential elections are in mid-2021. US sanctions and the Rouhani government’s poor economic record have already cost Iranian moderates control over parliament and the next president is likely to be a hardliner. Given that hardliners in Iran have long expressed their opposition to the JCPOA, Biden cannot gamble on a favorable outcome in Iran’s presidential elections. If he wants to revive the agreement upon assuming office, he needs to act quickly.
Saheb Sadeghi is a columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @sahebsadeghi.
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