Europe Should Move Quickly to Help Biden Reengage with Iran
There is no time to waste. With Joe Biden to take office on January 20, European countries look forward to a U.S. policy toward Iran that is once again more in line with theirs. Yet seven weeks still remain of a Trump presidency that is tempted to taint future diplomatic ties. The assassination a few days ago of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered to be a leading figure of Iran’s nuclear program, including in its suspected weaponization efforts, demonstrates how volatile the situation is. With little ability to exercise direction on Iran policy during the transition period, President-elect Biden needs to rely on partners and allies to curtail any escalation of tensions and lay the groundwork for reengagement.
Should European countries therefore help a president not yet in office on Iran? Absolutely. It would be in their own interest to adopt as soon as possible a three-pronged approach to U.S.-Iranian relations. This would consist of protecting the nuclear deal, preserving the security status quo, and preparing the ground for new negotiations.
Protect. In this last stretch of the Trump presidency, the European Union must maintain its efforts to keep the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) alive. A Biden presidency does not mean that the United States will rejoin the deal quickly. Washington is likely to want to leverage talks to make new requests. But the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Josep Borrell should make it a priority to ensure that Iran’s interest in the deal does not fade further. Europe’s success over the past four years is not that the JCPOA is still alive despite the United States’ withdrawal and Iran’s consequent decision to break its terms, but that it has kept Iran committed to the idea of the deal and of its long-term benefits.
Preserve. President Trump has contemplated ordering a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia provided opportunities to discuss possible options on Iran—reportedly culminating in a not-so-secret trilateral meeting in Saudi Arabia on November 22. In addition, as the one-year anniversary of the killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani on January 3 nears, tensions could easily escalate, as Fakhrizadeh’s assassination has shown. President Trump could decide to act on the perception of a threat related to this anniversary to compensate the failure of his administration’s “maximum pressure” approach, and preemptively damage future diplomatic initiatives.
Iran has yet to fulfill on its promise to retaliate to the death of Suleimani, leveraging the threat to maintain pressure on the United States. It is unlikely that it will do so while President Trump is still in office, with the strategic risks outweighing the tactical gains. But it is not impossible that, regardless of Tehran’s instructions, proxies in the region could give the United States justification to respond. Europe’s diplomatic efforts on all sides will be critical in the coming weeks in preventing an incident that could lead to conflict.
Prepare. There will not be enough time for President Biden to conclude a full deal with Iran before the country’s presidential election in June 2021. The clock is ticking for President Hassan Rouhani, whose political capital has been considerably eroded by his management of the U.S. rebuff, the sanction-induced economic crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic. Any deal prior to the election is unlikely to have a determinant impact on its outcome, but— since one would only be possible with the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—it would be a “transitional agreement” that would survive a change in the presidency in Tehran.
The E3 countries (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) should therefore propose a roadmap for the United States and Iran to return to their 2015 commitments through a series of confidence-building measures. With the United Kingdom entangled in post-Brexit talks until the end of the year, France should take the lead in crafting such an approach, namely by updating its 2019 four-point plan proposing a negotiation on a long-term framework for Iran’s nuclear activities, as well as separate negotiations over regional issues. Next to Iran’s nuclear program, a parallel track should indeed already be opened aimed at addressing concerns with regards its ballistic missile capacity.
It might seem unconventional for the United States to rely on its European allies in shaping its future relations with Iran. Yet it would not be a first. It is often forgotten that the JCPOA is the outcome of a European-led engagement started more than a decade before the United States officially sat down at the table. Especially at this unique time, the United States needs Europe as much as Europe needs the United States when it comes to Iran. And President-elect Biden needs Europe now.