26 January 2021

By Gianmarco Palermo

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will do the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

With these words on January 20th, Joe Biden was sworn in as 46th President of the United States. Following his oath, he will have the full freedom to reconsider the direction of the US foreign policy after the presidency of Donald Trump.

However, transition periods are not easy moments for the newly elected administrations. International experts do not often suggest making abrupt changes in foreign policies when there is a change in the new administration’s direction. Rather, it is often preferred to have a smooth and a constant deviation to prevent an escalation in some very delicate context. Nonetheless, in the current situation, experts do seem to accept this risk and foreign ministers and international actors are asking the new US President to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal.

A preliminary agreement on the deal was reached by the 5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China plus Germany1) and Iran in 2015 during Obama's Presidency. However, Former President Donald Trump with a Presidential Memorandum (full Memorandum in notes)2 followed by an Executive Order, ceased the participation of the US in the agreement.

Now, after more than two years from the US’s withdrawal, President Joe Biden seems to be convinced to revive the deal. In support of that, President Biden has chosen his foreign policy team very carefully. The decision to appoint Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor is already a confirmation, he wants them to work on the Iranian deal. In fact, both high officials were strong supporters of the deal and they worked already for its negotiations and approval during the Obama administration.

In principle, all seems set up. But in practice, things can go in a different direction. Thus, which are the reasons why each country or group of countries is looking for the US to rejoin the agreement?

Iran is - by far - the country which needs this new agreement the most. Already in 2018, Iran needed an agreement and it needed one as soon as possible. The motivations were pretty much based on economic reasons and they were motivated mostly by the massive sanctions that US and other International actors had put on the country, weakening its economy and trade. With the withdrawal of the US decided by former President Donald Trump, the situation got even worse3.

From the Iranian perspective, the sanctions are devastating, and the new government would immediately accept to reopen a table to suspend them. In the last few years, the economic situation of the country has been weakened massively and the primary sector, which is the export of oil, have lost billions of dollars in a few years. According to the analyses of the Iranian Central Bank published by the BBC, in 2008 oil exports started lowering and collapsed after the US and the EU imposed their sanctions, and the market reached back its original point in 2015 when Iran established or reached the agreement with the other countries and the sanctions were lifted4

As well, the sanctions have created domestic problems in Iran since the goods became more expensive and the population poorer. International investors and capital investors escaped from the country since the conditions were not favorable to make businesses and trade deals. The hope is that all these conditions gradually disappear after the US signs the agreement and the economy grows slowly. For all these reasons, the Iranian government and population are now waiting for positive news from their Western counterparts.

There is a completely different situation in the US. First of all, President Biden has a difficult job in re-creating a sort of trust between the US and Iran. If he succeeds in this job, the discussion can get to a concrete point. President Biden has at least a few things to take into account.

First, it is very important to notice that one of the most important cards of the new President is undoing Donald Trump’s past withdrawal. President Biden can easily re-join the agreement in order to show to his electorate that he is destroying each and every piece of legacy from the previous government. At the same time, his administration will continue the work done by Barack Obama and by the Former Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Additionally, President Biden is willing to change the US role in the Middle East and the International arena, in general. With the withdrawal of Former President Donal Trump, the US-Iran relations has gotten to the lowest point since years. The hardest challenge of the new habitant of the White House is to restore the basic diplomatic relations between those two countries.This should create a more peaceful and stable context in the whole region of the Middle East.

The only condition -which does not seem clear neither simple to reach- is that the Iranian Government commits again with the same original clauses. Indeed, Iranian experts might ask the US and other partners to sign a better deal following the fact that the country suffered a lot during this year from economic uncertainty. Of course, President Biden would appear insufficiently strong to his electorate and to the world if he would concede more favorable conditions to President Hassan Rouhani.

After having discussed the conditions set for the two biggest actors in the deal, now we can cover the other countries, which can be divided into two big groups: the EU plus Germany, France and the UK on one side, and Russia and China on the other side.

The European Union had played a key role in the negotiations and France, Germany and the UK had worked together with the former High Representative Federica Mogherini to shape a deal, which would be suitable for all countries, representing the backbone of the agreement. Indeed, as recognized by the scholars and by the international relations, the “Iran deal is a European success story of effective multilateralism initiated by three European countries and the EU”5

According to the data released by the European Commission, the EU used to be Iran’s first trading partner before the current sanctions regime, and today the EU is one of Iran's main trading partners following just China and the United Arab Emirates6.

Moreover, European investments in Iranian companies are massive and continue to increase. For these reasons, the President of the European Commission and the former EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, in an official statement release, assured that the European Union is fully committed to respect and implement the Iran nuclear deal as long as Iran respects its obligations.

The last group of countries I will focus on is China and Russia. Both assumed very often similar positions and in many cases undertook mutually beneficial actions, creating a second block, besides the EU’s one. The two powers frequently released joint documents regarding their positions to conclude an agreement between the parties. One of these was released in May 2018 when President Donald Trump expressed his opposition to the deal. Immediately, Russia and China, in a joint statement, “confirmed their unwavering support for the comprehensive and effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”7

Regarding China, the economic relations with Iran today appear quite important especially in the exchange of oil and armaments8. Moreover, China today wants to tie the economic relations with Iran and has high military technologies that would deem attractive to Iran. Therefore, the Chinese current primary goal is to maintain a valid agreement on the nuclear deal and to keep solid economic relations based mostly on importing oil and exporting high technology military goods.

Simultaneously, - after years of controversial relations - the diplomatic relations between Russia and Iran increased in the last years and the two countries signed a military cooperation pact, affirming that “Iran and Russia have common viewpoints toward political, regional and global issues”9. In addition, the two countries are now the most important allies of the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, and thus Russia can count on this strategic ally in the Middle East. For those reasons, both China and Russia will push the return of the US into the Iranian deal and the implementation of the JCPOA.

Joe Biden’s first month in the White House does not look like a funny start. The Trump administration has been quite a disruption in terms of changing policies and withdrawal from previous agreements and organisations. Thus, if the idea of the new US President is to bring the US four years back, joining back each agreement the former US administration chose to leave, it will be a very long journey. So, for Joe Biden, as the chorus goes: “the world is watching you!”

References for further readings

(1) In the agreement there is also the European Union.

(2) Ceasing U.S. Participation in the JCPOA and Taking Additional Action to Counter Iran’s Malign Influence and Deny Iran All Paths to a Nuclear Weapon

(3) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109

(4) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109

(5) Cronberg Tarja 2017, No EU, no Iran deal: the EU's choice between multilateralism and the transatlantic link, The Nonproliferation Review, 24:3-4, 243-259

(6) European Commission 2019, Trade Pictures of Iran, last update Nov 2020

(7) United National Office Disarmaments Affairs 2019, Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/7/Rev.1, available from undocs.org

(8) Sotoudehfar, 2015. On the Status of Iran’s Oil Trade with China in Pre- Nuclear Deal, International Economics Studies, 45(2), 21-32.

(9) Haaretz 2019, Russia and Iran Sign Military Cooperation Agreement, 20 January 2015, Haaretz and The Associated Press, https://www.haaretz.com/iran-russia-to-sign-military-cooperation-pact-1.5362702