A return to the Iran nuclear deal is often viewed as renewed alignment between the US and Iran, but there’s more at stake than that, says US Iran expert Ilan Berman, speaking to Brussels Morning.
Washington, D.C. (Brussels Morning) When it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, it’s impossible to get consensus across the entire international playing field. The US Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018 drew ire in Europe. Meanwhile, current US president Joe Biden’s departure from the “maximum pressure” approach has few fans among other traditional US allies in the Middle East, e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Trump’s maximum pressure policy became even less popular when it invoked secondary sanctions and subsequent messaging that European allies faced consequences should they not comply. Companies like Total, Renault and Mercedes Benz left Tehran at a high price.
This rift between Euro-Atlantic partners has yet to be bridged and in the vacuum, Tehran has moved closer to Beijing and, in part, Moscow. Still, there are ardent supporters of the ‘maximum pressure’ stance, such as Ilan Berman, an Iran expert and Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
Berman tells Brussels Morning why he thinks Trump got it right, Obama got it wrong and how Biden will misfire as well, yet, all is still at play.
Ambassador Tedo Japaridze (TJ). You have been an open supporter of the ‘maximum pressure’ policy even before Trump’s administration. Do you feel the policy change vis-à-vis Iran is likely to be rhetorical or substantial during Biden’s term in office?
Ilan Berman (IB). It’s clear that the Biden administration is executing a pivot away from the ‘maximum pressure’ of the Trump era toward re-engagement with Iran. The objective, according to administration principals, is to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal as a prelude to a “longer and stronger” agreement between Washington and Tehran that covers not only Iran’s nuclear program but also other issues (such as the regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, etc.).
Whether that happens, however, is still very much an open question.
The Iranian side has already signalled that the best the Biden administration can hope for is a return to the JCPOA — and that even that will require significant concessions on America’s part. At the same time, Iran has begun a series of provocative steps (for instance, increasing the scope of its enrichment activities) to put additional pressure on Washington.
This strategy seems to be working. The White House is now signalling something it wasn’t before: it is prepared to provide Iran with preemptive sanctions relief to pursue some sort of deal. In the process, it appears to have decided to ignore the very significant economic and political leverage that its predecessor had amassed due to nearly two years of ‘maximum pressure’.
In my opinion, that’s a serious error because the last administration’s approach had a tremendous impact on the Iranian economy. It destabilised the country’s national currency, dried up the regime’s oil revenue and imposed concrete costs on Tehran for its regional activities and support for terrorism. Objectively speaking, ‘maximum pressure’ was a success in this regard: in its latest estimate (issued in April), the World Bank assessed that Iran now has just 4 billion dollars in readily accessible foreign exchange reserves. So, when the Biden team took the reins, the Iranian regime was on the cusp of a serious fiscal crisis.
It still is, and the operative question is whether the US intends to take advantage of that situation to exact concessions and force a deal that serves American strategic interests better than the JCPOA did. Unfortunately, it’s not looking that way.
TJ. Washington has estranged many of its European allies by withdrawing from the JCPOA. For France and Germany, this meant the loss of billions in investment that was previously encouraged. Do you feel Iran has caused a permanent rift in the Euro-Atlantic alliance and does it matter?
(IB). The Trump era did indeed see a growing divide between the US and Europe over a range of issues. Iran was only one of them. But this rift is far from permanent — and it appears to be closing.
On Iran, for instance, the new administration’s more conciliatory approach has brought it considerably closer to the European position. For many countries (including many EU states), the 2015 deal created an environment where it was possible to return to ‘business as usual’ with the Islamic Republic. Those nations wasted no time in re-engaging with — and reinvesting in — Iran, which was disrupted by ‘maximum pressure’, increasing the credible threat of US sanctions against Iran’s trading partners and causing a cooling of the Iranian market as a result.
Now, however, that fear has more or less subsided.
The Biden administration has signalled that it wants to re-engage with Tehran and isn’t likely to penalise nations that already have done so.
However, this isn’t necessarily a permanent condition.
If the Iranian side rebuffs current US overtures, or if Tehran engages in sufficiently provocative actions in the region, the Biden administration could sour on the idea of cooperation. If that happens, Washington will once again be tempted to lean on sanctions as a tool to change Iranian behaviour, including by targeting the regime’s trading partners.
TJ. The Trump administration claimed some credit for facilitating the bridging between the UAE, Saudis and Israel. Is this a matter-of-fact assessment or mainly the consolidation of a long-standing status quo? And, when it comes to Iran, are Israel and the UAE on the same page?
IB. The answer is that it is a bit of both. Quiet contacts between Israel and the Gulf states had been underway for some years. These covert ties were built around a shared fear of a rising and increasingly belligerent Iran at the outset. Over time, however, they blossomed into a broader economic and political normalisation that has helped to fundamentally reset the regional table. The signing of the Abraham Accords last Fall was a formalisation of this ongoing trend. Even so, the Trump administration deserves a great deal of credit for nurturing the bonds and helping to bring them out into the open.
Here, two additional things are worth noting.
The first is Iran’s role and continued role in the Israel-Gulf equation. An early movement toward normalisation was made possible by a consensus among Israel and the Gulf states that Iran represented a strategic threat requiring a consolidated regional response. That logic was reinforced in 2015 when the Obama administration helped usher in the JCPOA — and thereby indicated to America’s regional partners that they were essentially on their own and needed to forge a united front against Iran. That’s a historical lesson worth remembering today because the same dynamics are at play in the Biden administration’s planned ‘reset’ of relations with Iran. The current administration’s efforts are having the same effect as Obama’s did. They are giving the appearance of aligning Washington with Tehran and alienating America from its traditional regional allies.
Second, and related, is the fact that the Abraham Accords have profoundly changed the conversation in the Middle East. The regional environment is profoundly different from what it was in 2015 when the JCPOA was signed. The ‘new normal’ of political coordination and economic cooperation between Israel and a growing number of regional states is a context that the US will need to consider as it formulates its policy in the Middle East generally and toward Iran in particular. If it ignores these dynamics, Washington will be sidelined in the evolving regional conversation.
TJ. What are the major trends and strategic dynamics now unfolding in the region and their implications for the US and Europe?
IB. The normalisation wave between Israel and a growing number of Arab nations is clearly a profound regional shift. It brings Israel closer to the ‘Arab world’ as a whole and lays the basis for economic and political cooperation that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Moreover, this trendline appears to be self-sustaining. The countries of the Abraham Accords are now discussing and cooperating on a growing number of issues: agriculture to security to medicine. Those bonds are likely to broaden over time as all of the parties begin to see concrete dividends from their collaboration. And, just maybe, this trend will eventually draw in additional countries (like Saudi Arabia).
Another is the growing presence of external actors like Russia and China in the region. For instance, the Kremlin has successfully used its involvement in the Syrian civil war as a springboard to broaden its activities and influence (as well as its military presence) in the Middle East and Africa. The result is that Moscow today enjoys its most robust regional footprint since the 1970s.
China, too, is more and more deeply involved in the region, which has become a core area of focus for its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing is emerging as a pivotal economic partner for countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, a growing technological ally for repressive regional regimes, and more and more overt military and strategic presence. All this has tremendous implications for virtually everything the US is planning in the region.
A final trendline of note is the shifting nature of Islamic extremism. The destruction of ISIS in 2019 was a significant accomplishment, but it did not end the threat posed by the terror group. Over the past two years, we have seen a repositioning of ISIS and its affiliates to other global theatres, signs of a resurgence by the group in the Middle East itself, and indicators that Islamic radicals are successfully using pandemic conditions to recruit, organise and mobilise. The threat, in other words, has not receded. Rather, it has taken on new and challenging forms, which the US and its allies will need to address in the years ahead.