Some Thoughts concerning the US Presidential Election and the Future of the JCPOA
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Written by Felix Dejaiffe
The landscape of European security will certainly be impacted by the results of the 2020 US elections. Under Trump’s past presidency and the American retreat from multilateralism, it is undeniable that Europe has become less stable and less secure, if we are to consider mounting Russian pressure on NATO eastern allies and Turkey’s scuffle with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, the discussions over Iran’s compliance with regards to the JCPOA and its “rogue” behaviour in regional politics have been polarised by US withdrawal and policy shift towards “maximum pressure”. The fate of the JCPOA now depends on the outcome of the 2020 US elections and how the next President will manage key nominations regarding foreign affairs.
If Trump wins the presidency for four more years, EU policymakers will certainly struggle to revive the Iran nuclear agreement, as the US State department has continued to tighten economic sanctions such as against Iranian banks in early October 2020. Trump conceives the US-Iran as a geopolitical game in which its foreign policy is conducted primarily between great/regional powers. Trump’s approach towards the Iran nuclear file has been “instrumentalist” seeing the Iranians as an “enemy figure”, that seeks to undermine Washington’s interests in the region. US-Iran relations also are characterized by hegemonic competition in the Middle East, where the Americans, together with Saudi Arabia and Israel, seek to counter Iranian influence (Gartner, H & Huscka, M. 2020, p. 235). Hence, difficulties will remain after the 2020 elections because Washington political establishment have a deep-rooted representation of Iran as an existential threat.
If Biden is elected, some hope remains, yet EU policymakers should be cautious to manage expectations on the prospects of the JCPOA. Indeed, Frank N. von Hippel, former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, declared that even with a democrat, the US presidency will remain hostile to Iran, citing the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government and the backing of Saddam Hussein during his 1980-88 war against Iran as examples for distrust (Mazhari, M. 2020a). Additionally, Joe Biden has not been recognized to be most skilful US policymaker when it comes to foreign policy such as in 2009 with Obama’s military strategy in Afghanistan. In this regard, former Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates famously stated: “Joe is a man of integrity, incapable of hiding what he really thinks (…). Still, I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades” (2015, p. 333).
In the case of a successful bid for the American presidency for Biden, transatlantic relations will not necessarily become smoother.
Gates’ comments still resonate until today. The dispute between Gates and Biden over the strategy to be adopted in Afghanistan should temper the enthusiasm of the traditional US allies for the Democratic presidency. The US allies' desire for "anything but Trump" should not obscure the profound changes that the US election has revealed: American society is no longer the same, and neither is the rest of the world (Kauffman, S. 2020). In the case of a successful bid for the American presidency for Biden, transatlantic relations will not necessarily become smoother.
Biden has expressed his intention to re-join the JCPOA and push Iran back to compliance under the agreement if he is elected (Biden, J. 2020b). Nonetheless, he further added his intention to fight back against Iran's destabilizing activities while strengthening US military partnership with Israel to ensure it can defend itself against Iran and its proxies (Biden, J. 2020a). The new administration in Washington will most probably seek to re-join the JCPOA and push for an enhancement or rather a revisit of the agreement’s obligations through the establishment of a regional track of negotiations (Mazhari, M. 2020b), probably basing itself on the precedent “distrust and verify” approach laid out by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In 2015, Hilary Clinton offered a defence of the nuclear agreement with Iran while laying out a comprehensive plan to oppose Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Hilary Clinton based her approach towards Iran on five key pillars such as:
1) deepening America’s “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s military security,” including providing Israel with the most advanced offensive and defensive weapons in our arsenal,
2) reaffirming that the Persian Gulf—especially the Strait of Hormuz—is a region of “vital interest” to the United States and bolstering security cooperation with Gulf allies,
3) building a coalition to counter Iran’s proxies—in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, and Syria—while enforcing sanctions on every country involved in Iranian arms shipments to those proxies,
4) Standing against Iran’s violations of democracy and human rights at home, including its detention of political prisoners, crackdown on freedom of expression, and continuing imprisonment of American citizens,
5) adopting a “comprehensive regional strategy that promotes stability and counters extremism.” (Galston, W. 2015).
This will, however, provoke diplomatic complications as the Iranians have refuted this possibility (Hafezi, P. 2019). Even further, if the US administration seeks a return to the nuclear deal under Biden, Iran will not accept such moves without asking for a certain compensation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif recently told to a Russian outlet that “the US must compensate for damage that it caused to the Iranian nation, as well as for measures taken by the US to undermine the nuclear deal and promise to not do it again” (Batyaev, H. 2020). Even if these are only statements, it is understandable that nothing is decided regarding the return of the United States to the nuclear agreement and the discussions that would follow.
On the one hand, a Biden administration will believe that it does not need European expertise because of likely staffers who would dispose of first-hand experience in negotiating with Iran (Duclos, M. 2020). On the other hand, the volatile situation in the Middle East aligned with the JCPOA’s complexity, should prompt the Europeans to regain leadership now more than ever. With twelve years of critical dialogue and negotiations, the E3/EU proved capable of maintaining contact with all stakeholders, including China, Russia, Iran, and Israel.
Defusing a geopolitical situation is a noble goal but preparing the future of the JCPOA with concrete negotiation guidelines may be even better. As Trump has mentioned the possibility of a “bigger deal”, Europe should conceive regional arms negotiations which would include all regional powers as it may be more suitable for the Iranian government who wishes to avoid becoming defenceless against a potential US interventionist policy in the region. On the other side of the international realm, the EU/E3 and its Chinese and Russian counterparts aim at re-establishing common grounds between the United States and Iran to revive the JCPOA, but with diverging objectives. Europe would like to include the control of the Iranian ballistic missiles in the JCPOA while the second refuses this option.
The E3/EU should focus on the strength of its Member States to adopt a unified or comprehensive stance on the issue, keep a close collaboration with China and Russia, and further maintain an active bilateral dialogue between the US and Iran as a facilitator for future talks. More than the need to regionalize the JCPOA, the E3/EU and the US must resolve the need to achieve a transatlantic strategic assessment of the threats – involving themselves within a multilateral caucus where their advocacy for common regional security talks will be heard and believed as credible and legitimate. The underlying assumption towards this issue should therefore be as such: “if we can agree on what we want – let’s not try to agree on why we want it”. Effectively, the E3/EU and the US must go beyond their respective bilateral relationship with Iran and regionalise their policies, whether in providing humanitarian support against the pandemic, resolving tensions around the nuclear file such as with economic relief, or working to stop the proliferation of arms around the Persian Gulf (Adebahr, C. 2020). The need for a regional framework to counter nuclear proliferation in the Middle East should be established.
In the hypothesis of a renewed transatlantic dialogue, EU policymakers should not forget to consider Iranian political realities and its eastern strategic outlook. Furthermore, US maximum pressure policy has proven Tehran’s hardliners right.
The outcome of Iran’s presidential elections in June 2021 may provide political credit to a harsher approach with regards to the JCPOA. As such, this may mean a rejection of any prospects of diplomatic dialogue with occidental partners. Thus, Western allies will need to figure how to adapt to such a scenario and to keep a communication channel with Tehran’s leadership. Moreover, the Iranian election in 2021 will be coupled with the interrogation of Tehran’s position in regional politics regarding the latest Gulf-Israel rapprochement. Iran may become more isolated than ever but its capacity to overcome regional tensions thanks to its resilience and its regional proxies could negatively impact the region’s security, especially in strategic areas and conflicts such as in Syria and Yemen. Increasing tensions between Iran and its neighbours could render negotiations almost impossible if relying on shuttle diplomacy is envisaged as was the case with the Obama administration and its critical dialogue with Iranians in Oman. If Biden wins the elections, will the US administration be able to overcome Israel and Saudi Arabia conflicting positions regarding Iran’s rogue behaviour in the region, or will current regional tensions deepen? Will the West be able to launch a regional security dialogue on a long-term basis? Can the US provide enough security guarantees to its regional allies while promising economic compensations to Tehran?
Amid these interrogations, it is essential Europe tailors its diplomatic gamble to the (geo)political reality and strengthens its transatlantic partnership if it hopes to revive the JCPOA. Nevertheless, Washington and Europe will need to clarify their common interests and foreign policy approaches to create the right conditions for a foreseeable diplomatic scenario wherein concerns of regional actors, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, can be included and minimized in order to diffuse security tensions.
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