US president-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, US, December 2 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS
US president-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, US, December 2 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS

After the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last week, US president-elect Joe Biden is coming under renewed pressure to quickly resume negotiations with the regime. He should slow down and proceed with caution.

Biden has long since telegraphed his desire to resuscitate the nuclear deal that Iran agreed to with the US and other world powers in 2015. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it was known, was designed to pause Tehran’s nuclear-development programme well short of the weaponisation stage.

Since President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the agreement in 2018, Tehran has accelerated its enrichment of uranium and built up its stockpile to alarming levels. Now the regime is threatening to end international nuclear inspections unless Biden lifts key sanctions within weeks of taking office.

Biden would like to turn the clock back, and can expect a chorus of approval from the other signatories of the deal if he does. The EU, along with China and Russia, would like him to flourish his executive pen and quickly bring the US back into the agreement: that would allow them to sell everything from passenger jets and sedans to missiles and tanks to the theocrats in Tehran.

At the other end of the spectrum, Israel and many of Iran’s Arab neighbours are signaling their anxiety — witness Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent secret visit to Saudi Arabia — that Biden will repeat the mistakes of president Barack Obama and brush aside the concerns of countries that are most menaced by the regime and its proxies. They view the agreement as a licence for Iran to deploy all non-nuclear means in its pursuit of regional hegemony. 

They won’t be reassured by Biden’s decision to name top Obama-era officials Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, both champions of the nuclear deal, as his secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively.

Biden’s own preferences are to encourage Iran to end enrichment and reduce its stockpile to 2017 levels, which would pave the way for the US to return to the deal and drop the sanctions introduced by Trump. Once such a “compliance-for-compliance” scenario is achieved, Biden hopes to open new negotiations over Iran’s other dangerous activities, including its missile development and use of proxy militias to destabilise the region.

Resuming dialogue would no doubt be politically expedient for Biden, but he should be mindful that the trick to diplomacy is often in the timing. There’s little purpose to opening negotiations before next summer, when Iran’s quadrennial simulacrum of elections produces a new president. Although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will always be the regime’s real decision-maker, it makes sense to wait for him to formally anoint Hassan Rouhani’s successor before sending feelers to Tehran.

Waiting will also give Biden time enough to repair Trump’s rift with the other signatories, and establish a united position with which to confront Iran. He’ll need to persuade the Europeans, Chinese and Russians that everybody’s economic and security interests are best served by holding out for a deal that is comprehensive in nature, and not just in name — one that requires Iran to forgo not only the nuclear option but also its other dangerous activities.

To achieve this, Biden should recruit Israel and the Arab states to add their powers of persuasion to his. Such a consensus might even persuade Republican opponents of the nuclear deal to come onside, insuring any new agreement against the whims of a future president. A reasonable leader in Tehran would recognise the value in that.

Diplomacy with Iran is the smart course for Biden, but rushing into another flawed deal won’t help anyone.


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