The Takeaway: Iran’s mixed messages include diplomatic opening for Biden

Iran escalates tensions in Trump’s final days, while Zarif opens window to diplomacy; Israel, Palestinians, Gulf ready themselves for Biden; Woman coaches Egyptian men’s soccer team; More mummies in Egypt!

al-monitor US President-elect Joe Biden speaks with outside diplomatic, intelligence, and defense experts to discuss readiness at the relevant agencies during a video meeting in Wilmington, Delaware on Nov. 17, 2020. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images.

Nov 18, 2020

Iran risks escalation in Iraq, fires diplomatic flare for 'veteran politician' Biden

No need for negotiations. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said if the incoming Biden administration revokes “only three executive orders” that imposed sanctions on Iran, there is no need for “preconditions or negotiations” on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal). If the United States ends sanctions, “Iran will carry out its obligations too,” Zarif said.

Back to the Future. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and imposed sanctions via executive orders that have contributed to Iran’s economic woes, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, low oil prices and systemic corruption. In response, Iran increased its enrichment of uranium, a necessary step toward developing a nuclear weapon, exceeding levels imposed by the JCPOA. Iran has not yet reached weapons-level stockpiles or even the pre-JCPOA levels; its actions are reversible. Iran has also expanded its use of centrifuges, in violation of the JCPOA.

No wasted opportunities. US President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will consider a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal), but only if Iran is in “strict compliance” with the JCPOA’s terms. But Iran’s not in compliance, as noted above. Iran has until now said that it would not comply unless the United States offered both an apology and compensation for losses incurred under sanctions since 2018.

‘The situation will improve.' Iran’s message has softened since Biden defeated Trump in the US presidential election. Iran President Hassan Rouhani said last week that “no one has the right to waste opportunities.” Zarif, in his comments today, said that he has known Biden for 30 years, referring to him as a “veteran politician.”

“We are ready to discuss how the United States can re-enter the accord,” Zarif said. “The situation will improve in the next few months. Biden can lift all sanctions with three executive orders.”

Iran feeling maximum pressure. The Trump administration’s sanctions have taken a toll on Iran’s economy, dramatically reducing its oil exports and access to international financial institutions.  Al-Monitor columnist Bijan Khajehpour says Tehran has learned that it can’t have economic relations with the European Union while under US sanctions. Zarif admitted that while “we did come out victorious against the United States, it is undeniable that our economy incurred losses from Trump sanctions.”

The Trump administration on Nov. 18 announced more sanctions on Iran, targeting the foundation of Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is visiting Israel and the Gulf this week, promised more sanctions to come.

Risks of Escalation. Meanwhile, rockets apparently fired by an Iran-backed militia hit a US complex in Baghdad. Trump reportedly told advisers that Iran would face a "swift and painful” response if any Americans are killed in future attacks. Tensions between the two countries are high. Just last week, according to The New York Times, President Trump was dissuaded from an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in response to Iran’s increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium.

More ideas for ‘creative diplomacy’. Khajehpour suggests that further diplomatic signals might include the US dropping its opposition to a pending $5 billion IMF loan to Iran to assist hardships associated with COVID-19, and considering codifying Iran deal provisions into law, perhaps via a treaty, sparking a debate in Iran that could open up opportunities to discuss other revisions to the deal, as Biden has advocated.

Our take. The risks of escalation could not be higher. Zarif has fired off a diplomatic flare for Biden, but the new administration won’t be in place for two months. Trump is serious about both more forthcoming sanctions and retaliation if Americans are killed in Iraq. Iran, for its part, faces presidential elections in June 2021, potentially complicating diplomacy. Khamenei has little trust in the United States. The expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran means that those countries may consider selling weapons to Iran, so any US diplomacy on  Iran will require some degree of buy-in from Moscow and Beijing, as we have written here

Listen here: You can hear my full interview with Bijan Khajehpour here on the latest episode of Al-Monitor’s On the Middle East podcast.

Four quick takes on how Israel, Palestinians and the Gulf are prepping for Biden

Israel: Netanyahu goes for broke. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s delay in congratulating Biden was “a calculated move designed to improve prospects that the president (Trump) would take anti-Iranian measures during his final months in office.” Read Ben Caspit’s report here

Palestine: Return to cooperation with Israel could undermine Palestinian unity talks. The decision to resume Israeli-Palestinian coordination, as was expected if Biden won the US presidential election, “might blow up the sensitive reconciliation talks [between Fatah and Hamas] going on in Cairo,” writes Daoud Kuttab. “Hamas has strongly denounced the return of cooperation with the 'criminal Zionist occupiers.' Hamas said that the decision goes against all promises and agreements reached in the Sept. 3 summit of senior Palestinian leaders that took place in Ramallah and Beirut. Read Daoud’s report here.

Saudi Arabia and UAE: Time to talk with Biden about Iran. “Insecure in how the Biden administration will treat it, the propensity of the [Saudi] Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] will be for action rather than process. But this is the wrong approach,” writes Karen Young. “Saudi Arabia needs to reach out to the Biden team now, and the Biden administration needs to make its intentions very clear, and very early. We need a back channel. And for the United Arab Emirates, they are positioned to survive Trump and appease Biden, but they have the most to lose in a regional conflagration.” Read Karen’s article here.

Gulf Oil Producers: Weighing Biden’s green energy plan. “The greatest source of concern for Gulf exporters is Biden's pledge to accelerate the energy transition and make the United States ‘the engine of the world’s clean energy economy’ by investing $400 billion in clean energy research and innovation over 10 years,” reports Sebastian Castelier. “Long-term trends indicate fossil fuel-dependent Gulf economies might be heading for troubled days anyway, as China also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060.” Read Sebastian’s report here.

Two really cool things from Egypt: 

Woman coaches men’s soccer. Fayza Haidar is Egypt’s first female coach to train a male soccer team, breaking all norms in a conservative society like Egypt. Rasha Mahmoud has the report here.

More mummies. Egypt’s rich archaeological heritage just got a lot richer, as the Antiquities Ministry announced one of the greatest finds in years, including “100 ancient wooden coffins closed for more than 2,500 years, 40 gilded statues of the God of the Saqqara necropolis Ptah Sukkar, two wooden statues and a number of Ushabti statues and amulets, and four gold cartonnages.” Read Rasha’s article here.

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