Why calling Khamenei’s bluff may be Biden’s best option
In the midst of the chaos that took Washington by surprise, when a mob invaded the Capitol, and while the US and the rest of the world were trying to grapple with what happened in America, Iran on Saturday gave President-elect Joe Biden an ultimatum: Lift the US sanctions on Tehran by Feb. 21 or we kick out nuclear watchdog inspectors.
One day before that, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a speech demanding the immediate lifting of sanctions on Iran. This followed a resolution that was passed by the Iranian parliament last month as a reaction to the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. His death ignited a defiant mood in Iran and prompted lawmakers to issue a law stating that international inspectors would be banned from the country if the US did not lift its financial, banking and oil sanctions by next month’s deadline. This gives Biden one month after he takes office to make a decision on Iran and puts the president-elect, who already has so many problems at home to solve, in something of a catch-22 situation. If he yields, he will look weak, setting the tone for his entire relations with Iran and greatly affecting the image of the US in the region. On the other hand, if he calls Khamenei’s bluff and does not lift the sanctions, Iran might kick out the nuclear inspectors and resume enrichment. We would then quickly end up with a nuclear Iran, which would further complicate issues. Tehran already announced last week that it had started enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, which brings it very close to a nuclear bomb.
Though one of Biden’s campaign promises was to go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, he has highlighted serious concerns regarding Iran’s belligerent behavior, particularly regarding its ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors. To add to that, he has not so far clarified how he is planning to re-enter the deal. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said that the US should return without negotiations, as the deal was previously negotiated for two years. He reasoned that, once the US enters the deal, other issues can be negotiated. In the current circumstances, this approach does not seem very convincing, especially given that Iran takes any chance to flex its muscles and bully its neighbors in the region. For example, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Aerospace Force, this month warned that missiles can be launched from Lebanon and Gaza in case Iran is attacked. The clear and present danger coming from Tehran’s behavior and statements does not give Biden the luxury of going back to the deal and leaving the issue of non-state actors and ballistic missiles for later.
Though Iran might feel it is putting pressure on the US, in fact this belligerent attitude makes it more difficult and embarrassing for Biden to go back to the deal. But how should Biden respond to such an ultimatum? To start with, he should not yield to Iran, while at the same time not saying no. He should leave the door open for negotiations and he should show goodwill toward the Iranian people. Biden should answer that he is ready to go back to the JCPOA and lift sanctions on his first day in office, rather than wait until Feb. 21, provided Iran clarifies its position on several issues and as long as those positions are in line with UN resolutions and principles.
Khamenei has previously mentioned that Iran’s involvement in the region is “definite and will continue.” It would be good to divide this overarching statement into smaller issues and ask Iran about its position on each of them. For example, is Iran willing to push the Houthis to re-engage with the political process in Yemen? Back in 2016, an agreement was reached between the Houthis and the legitimate government of Yemen in Kuwait, but Iran pressured the Houthis to continue fighting once they went back to Saada. Similarly, the US could ask the Iranians about Iraq and their support for armed militias. There is also the issue of Iran’s support for Bashar Assad and its militias’ role in Syria, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the political transition in that country. The US could ask Iran about the role of Hezbollah in blocking the formation of a government in Lebanon. The list can go on, with more and more details involved. Ultimately, the devil is in the detail.
The president-elect, who already has so many problems at home to solve, is in something of a catch-22 situation.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
In a nutshell, Biden should reply by highlighting a list of specific issues the US and its allies have with Iran, while pinpointing how the regime is breaching UN resolutions and its general principles. If Iran fails to answer all the points directly, this would put the Iranians in a tough spot. They would be giving Biden the chance to rally the US’ allies, namely the Europeans, around him to face an unbridled Iran. It would show Iran in a bad light, as it would be refusing to answer sensible demands that are supported by UN resolutions. Such rigidity would show the Iranian people that their leadership cares more about its regional proxies and adventurism than it cares about its own people.
To make it more difficult for Iran to say no, the US should put forward these points along with the EU. It is unlikely that Iran would give clear and definite answers or make concessions on everything. It might accept answering some points and this would open the door for discussions, while creating the mood for de-escalation brought about by the US’ softer tone. In this respect, Biden should then roll back some sanctions in proportion to the concessions Iran makes. This would give an impetus to the negotiations and offer a face-saving exit to both parties as neither the Americans nor the Iranians would be seen as yielding to their counterpart’s demands.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.