Brief n.3, November 2020

The American presidential election results are of great importance to the future of both US domestic and foreign policy. American policy will change in a number of strategic areas: NATO allies’ relations, Ukraine and the CIS, Middle East, to name a few. In Iran, American presidential elections attracted close attention in both the Iranian political elite and in the expert community.

Negative influence of sanctions on the socio-economic situation

Tehran is certainly interested in seeing the United States to return to the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to settle the Iranian nuclear problem). This would lead to the lifting of American sanctions, which previously caused significant damage to the Iranian economy. Suffice it to say that the growth of inflation in Iran in 2020 amounted to 29.7%, which is a record compared to the rates of the last 30 years. The oil sector was one of the hardest hit: instead of 2.5 million barrels per day (2017 level), Iran currently exports no more than 300-350 thousand barrels per day. In some regions of Iran, like Fars province, the purchasing power of Iranian workers has decreased by 70% over the past two years. As of March 2020 (that is, before the onset of the coronavirus epidemic), Iran's foreign exchange reserves decreased in 2018-2020 by $40 billion and amounted to $73 billion. The decline in Iranian GDP in 2019 was 8.2%. By autumn 2020, the Iranian economy contracted by an additional 3.5%. Unemployment rose from 14.5% in 2018 to 16.8% in 2019.

American policies in the region after the 2020 elections

In 2018-2019, some Iranian politicians placed their faith for change in a foreign policy with Joe Biden's victory in the elections. According to former Foreign Minister (1997-2005), and Iranian Ambassador to Paris, Kamal Kharazi, in the event of Trump's victory in the 2020 elections, tough anti-Iran policy would continue, and Washington would carry out a consistent economic strangulation of Iran. At the same time, the practice of the previous sanctions’ period (2010-2015) showed that the situation can be normalized only through direct negotiations with the United States. Such negotiations are possible only in the case of a Democratic Party candidate winning.

However, an analysis of recent statements made by Iranian politicians shows that the euphoria from Biden's victory has faded. An objective analysis of the situation has encouraged Tehran to do so. First, not all sanctions are caused by the Iranian nuclear issue. The US Congress has applied anti-Iranian sanctions since the Reagan administration in the 1980s and there is a degree of continuity in US political stance toward Iran. Second, imposing sanctions is much easier than lifting them. If Biden is opposed by a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, then his foreign policy initiatives will be doomed to failure. Third and most important, Obama's course to end confrontation with Iran was carried out in specific historical and geopolitical circumstances. The main issues for President Barack Obama in the Middle East in 2011-2016 were the war in Syria and the "fight against terrorism." During this period, the expansion of organizations such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda was rampant. These highly violent groups spread radical version of Sunni Islam (Salafism). The Obama administration became convinced that the real danger does not come from the exhausted revolutionary potential of Iran, but from radical Salafism, fueled by Saudi Arabia and partly by Qatar.

The period between 2011 and 2016 was the low point of US-Saudi Arabia relations. This was indicated in particular by the rather harsh statements about US Middle-Eastern policy made by Saudi high-ranking officials Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Prince Turki al-Faisal in the fall of 2013. Obama returned critical remarks on Saudi Arabia in March 2016 in an interview with The Atlantic Magazine. At the same time, relations between Barack Obama and the Israeli right-wing political groups, whose mouthpiece is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also deteriorated. Amid these developments, Barack Obama's decision to counterbalance Saudi influence in the region with an Iranian one was only logical. Temporary tactical cooperation was carried out between the United States and Iran in the fight against IS in Iraq at that time and some analysts even considered that the reopening of the US embassy in Tehran in the near future was possible. It is clear that currently the activity of jihadists in the region is in decline. Today the security of American allies - Israel and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf - became the foremost priority.

It should be noted that in addition to the nuclear problem in Iranian-American relations, there are a number of other important disagreements that will inevitably affect the course of negotiations on the INP and the possible lifting of sanctions. They include the Iranian missile program (the production of precision combat missiles, the flight range of which is increasing more and more, has been carried out in Iran over the past 10 years). Iran's regional influence has grown significantly over the past 10 years. It is reflected in the Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon through Iranian proxy groups such as the Lebanese movement, Hezbollah, the Shiite militias in Syria. The Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon is considered by Washington as a threat to Israel's national security. Another area of American concern is the Iranian control of the political processes in Iraq.

Iranian experts on possible US foreign policy scenarios toward Iran

Ali Musavi Khalkhali, a professor at the University of Tehran and an expert at the Diplomacy Irani portal, lists the reasons why maintaining relations with Biden will not be easy for Iran. Firstly, Biden has repeatedly stated that he is ready to return to the JCPOA, but at the same time he allows it only under condition of new concessions from Iran. Biden has already announced that the subject for new negotiations will be Iran's missile program, which was not initially discussed prior to signing of the JCPOA. In addition, Biden has already expressed concern about "human rights in Iran". Secondly, the Iranian expert believes that the new president will undergo serious processing by the lobbyists of Israel and the Arabian monarchies. The likelihood of this is very high, since during the events of the "Arab Spring" Washington practically lost all its other allies in the region. At the same time, Tehran does not have a serious lobby in the United States. Thirdly, in his opinion, Biden's attention can be diverted from Iran by the efforts of other, stronger states, whose relations with the United States have also deteriorated during the Trump presidency. Primarily these include Russia and China. Fourth, unblocking relations with Iran is unlikely to be Biden's priority. He will deal with the faltering partnership with European NATO countries and problems in relations with China.

Ahmad Zayd Abadi, political columnist with Sharq newspaper shares Ali Musavi Khalkhali views. He notes that Iran's contacts with Biden will go harder than with Trump. According to Abadi, Trump's foreign policy was distinguished by selfishness and a complete independence from American allies, with whom he did not coordinate his steps in the international arena. Biden, according to the author, will consult with traditional US allies, such as Germany, Great Britain and France, which may complicate the negotiation process. This is due to his liberal views and the approach of "liberal internationalism" in international relations. In this regard, the author mentions Trump's proposal to Iran in early July 2020 to “make a great deal”. Trump's principle was to apply maximum pressure, and then to compromise. Trump could be free in the negotiation process with Iran, since no one could reproach his neglect of Israel's interests. He was the most pro-Israeli president in US history. With his draft "deal of the century", he almost buried the possibility of creating a Palestinian state. As for Biden, he will certainly continue negotiations with the Palestinians and create, at least outwardly, an appearance of impartiality. Thus, he will not be "Islamophobic" like Trump, and will also be able to allow himself to be tough in his negotiations with Iran.

Lebanese journalist, Sarqis Naum, who has worked in the United States for many years, notes on Diplomacy Irani site, citing his conversation with a senior diplomat from the US State Department, four main points that could complicate Iran's negotiations with the Biden administration:

• the Americans will try to limit the regional influence of Iran and raise the issue of ending Tehran's support for Iranian proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq);

• they will try to link the renewal of the JCPOA with the Iranian missile program;

• American diplomats will try to further limit Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities in the new JCPOA;

• the big obstacle is that the JCPOA was never ratified by the US Senate. If it was, it would be very difficult for Trump to withdraw from the agreement unilaterally.


Despite the fact that Biden positions himself as Obama's foreign policy successor and declares the need to resume negotiations with Iran, this negotiation process (if it takes place) will be long-term. This is due to the concerns of Washington and its NATO allies about the growing regional influence of Iran and its missile program. Following the so-called "Arab Spring” revolutions, Iran was able to gain a foothold in Iraq and Syria. Its sphere of influence extended to the Mediterranean Sea and the borders of Israel. At the same time, the American elite is concerned with curbing Iranian ambitions.

This trend will continue under Biden, as the Democrats are also not interested in the regional strengthening of Iran. In this regard, we can assume three scenarios of possible Iranian-American relations after the Biden team come to power. The first, optimistic and, from our point of view, unlikely, outcome is a speedy negotiation process. A possible motivation for the Biden administration will be a return to the Obama course and a desire to strengthen the reformist faction (Rouhani, Zarif, Nehavandiyan) in the Iranian political elite. If both sides show flexibility, Tehran and Washington will make concessions on a number of issues. For example, the Iranians will agree to share influence with the Americans in Iraq and strengthen the current conditionally pro-Western government of Mustafa al-Kazemi there. Iran can also conclude a pact (surely in secret) on non-aggression with Israel and guarantee the security of the Jewish state from the northern borders and the Golan Heights. In return, the Americans will gradually lift sanctions (unfreezing Iranian holdings abroad, connecting Iranian banks to SWIFT, allowing traditional importers to buy Iranian oil).

The second, most likely scenario can be called "sluggish". Here we proceed from the assumption that the Middle East will not be a priority for the Biden team for at least two years. Too many deadlocks have accumulated in foreign policy during the Trump presidency. The priorities for Biden and his administration will be the following: rebuilding trust in relations with NATO allies and Atlantic solidarity; the settlement of relations with China in order to prevent a "cold war"; increased pressure on Russia, including in the post-Soviet space. There is no time or energy left for Iran in such a situation. In addition, Washington is moving away from unequivocal support for Israel on the Palestinian issue. To strike a balance, pressure on Iran must continue. In this case, long, sluggish negotiations will begin without visible results, possibly with the mediation of a third party (Turkey, Switzerland, Japan, Qatar). The Americans are making minor concessions, but in general the sanctions regime remains. At the same time, the parties agree to end direct hostile actions. The Persian Gulf region is experiencing relative stability.

The third option can be called "catastrophic." The Iranian elite is convinced that no agreements with the United States are possible. The positions of the reformist and pragmatist factions will finally weaken. The security actors and the section of the conservatives who insist on confrontation with the West come to power in Tehran. The Iranian Majlis decide to force its nuclear program and withdraw from the JCPOA. Iranian pressure on Israeli and American allies in the Gulf is growing (here you can recall the missile attacks on the Saudi fuel and energy complex in 2019). All of this ends with a new round of confrontation with possible US military strikes against Iran.

Copyright by ICSE, 2020