In Depth

US election: how Joe Biden will go about rebuilding the Iran Nuclear Deal

President-elect facing major challenge to keep Tehran satisfied as Europe forms nuclear strategy

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK have met to discuss tactics to breathe new life into the ailing Iran Nuclear Deal once Joe Biden is in the White House.

At talks in Berlin, the European politicians outlined plans to secure an agreement from Tehran to reduce Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile size to below the limit allowed under the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In return, the US would lift sanctions that have crippled the Western Asian nation’s economy.

The nuclear deal has floundered since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018, but Biden is eager to re-enter the accord, which was masterminded by his then-boss Barack Obama in 2015.

What is the current state of the deal?

The agreement was established by the United Nations, EU and US “in an attempt to force Iran to halt uranium enrichment”, says the BBC. Sanctions previously imposed by the trio had failed to secure that goal, but effectively destroyed the Iranian economy, costing Tehran $160bn (£118bn) in oil revenue between 2012 and 2016 alone.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran gained access to more than $100bn (£74bn) in assets frozen overseas and was allowed to resume selling oil on international markets. In return, Iran agreed to cut back its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98% to just 300kg for 15 years. 

The deal also stipulated that Tehran keep this stockpile’s level of enrichment at 3.67% - well below the 90% enrichment required for “weapons-grade” uranium.

However, after Trump pulled out of the agreement, Iran began increasing its stockpile. Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that these stores of low-enriched uranium are now 12 times higher than the limit set by the accord.

Who will lead the efforts to reboot the accord?

As he prepares to enter the White House, Biden appears to be looking to rekindle old relationships with European allies and give new life to the Iran deal.

The former vice president has already chosen Antony Blinken as his secretary of state. Blinken previously served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security advisor to Obama, and played a pivotal role in brokering the original Iran deal.

As Middle East Eye reports, Blinken “berated the Trump administration for nixing the agreement” back in 2018, warning that withdrawal from the pact put Washington on a “collision course” not only with Iran but also its own allies.

How will Biden re-establish US involvement?

Biden has said that after taking office on 20 January, he will rejoin the agreement if Iran first resumes strict compliance with the terms.

Although the president-elect has not explicitly laid out his plans for the deal, Blinken said earlier this year that Biden would use diplomacy to address the broader issues with Iran.

“[Biden] would seek to build on the nuclear deal to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance,” Blinken told the US-based Aspen Institute in August.

“And then we would be in a position to use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and lengthen it, but also we’d be in a much better position to effectively push back against Iran’s destabilising activities.”

Formal talks between the Biden team and European signatories of the deal cannot get under way until the victorious Democrat is in the Oval Office. But the UK, France and Germany have already “been urged to act as mediators between the US and Iran”, The Guardian reports.

How likely is he to succeed?

Wendy Sherman, the US lead negotiator on the Iran deal between 2011 and 2015, said last week that Biden enters in “a really tough, tough place” when it comes to Iranian-US relations. 

“President Trump is trying to create as many chips on the side of the US, and Iran is trying to create as many chips on the side of Iran before the new administration arrives,” Sherman added.

But despite the challenges ahead, German officials appear optimistic, with a spokesperson for Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying that Berlin is “confident” a “constructive” dialogue can be opened.

Not everyone is backing the plan, however. Two key US allies in the region have actively warned Biden against rejoining.

The first is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Sunday that there “must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement”. 

“We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons,” he insisted, in what Deutsche Welle calls a “thinly-veiled swipe at President-elect Biden”. 

Netanyahu - one of Trump’s most outspoken cheerleaders in the international community - has also “threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites if [Israel] believes the country is close to building a nuclear bomb”, The Economist reports.

The second potential stumbling block is Saudi Arabia, whose former ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, has also cautioned Biden against re-entering the deal.

“While we all aspire to have Iran back as a normal peaceful nation-state within the international community, the last 40 years’ experience with the Iranian regime is not encouraging,” Faisal told the National Council on US-Arab Relations last week.

The Saudi government improved relations with the US under Trump, but Faisal warned that rejoining the Iran deal “would not do service to stability in our region”.

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